With one hand Nick’s calloused fingers gripped the steering wheel, the other he pinched a bit of chew from his Skoal can. The Ford pickup was inundated with the growl of Cannibal Corpse. His newly developed gut seemed to pop through his flannel, but what he lacked in abs he made up in arm muscle. Titus thought, as they cruised around the backstreets of Navarre looking for something to do.
“How’s school been, Tits?” Nick’s words were moist with chew.
“Good, good,” Titus said, looking out the window.
“Do much, drinkin?” He lifted the empty 20 oz Coke bottle in his cup holder and spit. The thin, brown strands of tobacco floated in the residue of flat pop and saliva like maggots.
“I haven’t drank much since Mikey died.”
Nick grew quiet, his face slightly disgruntled and agitated. He spit again.
“What’re ya studying anyway?”
“What’re ya going to do with that?”
“A lot of thinking I guess.”
Nick laughed. “You were always smarter than the rest of us.” He adjusted his red baseball cap and spit into the bottle again.
“It’s a job ya know? Packing tomato sauce ain’t all that great. I get about 60 hours a week but I always leave smellin’ like shit. I heard you worked somewhere last summer. How was that?”
“It was good, I worked for a nonprofit near Oberlin.”
“ Oh yeah? What did you do?”
“Mostly a lot of fundraising and what not.”
“Is that right?” Nick’s voice was distant, like he was focusing more on his music than the clear diction of Titus’s voice.
“Ever think about moving and finding work elsewhere?” Titus said cautiously because Nick would never leave Navarre. They both knew it. Nick would work at Mid’s until it shut down 10 years later. He would fool around with Sandy, like he had been since 9th grade, who works at the Altercare Nursing Home. Nick would probably get her pregnant and they would get married. And then divorced. Titus thought all of this, Nick’s future flashed before his eyes, in the time it took Nick’s spit to hit the bottle.
Nick continued: “I have a buddy that works in fracking. I think I might get into that. They get $50 an hour and a lot of overtime.”
“That’s great man, that’s great man. You hear from James at all?”
“Here and there, you know that scrawny bastard joined the Marines?”
“Ma told me that. You know how he’s doing? I know he took Mikey’s death pretty hard.”
Nick spit again, a single strand of saliva was left glistening in his wiry beard. “Yeah. How’s your ma doing? I know she quit working for Time Warner.”
“She’s hanging, in there I guess. She doesn’t move around really good after her arthritis became really bad.”
“I’ll have to go visit. How about your dad?”
“I don’t know somewhere in Albuquerque I think. How about your parents?”
“They’re good. They’re good.”
Titus soaked in the words of the air, the words that he needed to say and the words Nick had tried for years to drown out with death metal and the noise of the factory line. “Shit, man.”
“It’s been over two years since Mikey died.”
Nick sighed and looked over at Titus briefly who was still looking out the window. “Two years and he’s not any less dead.” The words drained from his mouth.
Titus looked over. “How the hell can you say something like that?”
They both saw that day at Margaret’s. November 22nd, burned into their brains. Mikey, just sat there on a dirty couch, nursing a Miller Lite, while James in a state of drunkedness, put a whole through Margaret’s wall. Titus and Nick both blitzed out of their mind, while Mikey laughed. They could have sworn it was the happiest day of his life. He had a glint in his eye that hadn’t been there for months, like he saw something that they didn’t. Like he realized something they didn’t.
Titus continued: “Nick, we could have stopped him. He was cutting class, he wasn’t bathing. The signs were there, we could have said something. We could have said anything.”
Nick spit a larger wad into the bottle. “We all go through shit, Mikey just hit the bottle too hard that night.” But Nick saw it too, that one pasty white can growing flat, with a lone fly perched on top of the aluminum rim.
Nick didn’t cry at Mikey’s funeral, he just stood there with dark eyes watching the oak coffin be swallowed by the earth. All Nick could think about was Mikey and his Chevy being swallowed by the Tuscy River.
Titus snapped. “How the hell can you say that? How the hell can you live your life like it never happened? Like he was okay?” Titus paused. “How do you not think about it?”
“I don’t got much time to think.”
Titus looked at Mike, his lips and eyes curling into disgust.
“I have a job.” Nick spit again, the wad of saliva sizzled and sparked in the plastic bottle. “Mikey’s dead. I still gotta live.”
Titus paused and looked back out the window and tried to take in Nick’s words. But instead he thought. He thought about Ophelia, he thought about his term paper. He thought about Plato. And he thought about Nick. And it made him mad.
It made him mad that everything that Nick knew was a dot on a dot on a dot on a map. That he’ll never know anything beyond the taste of Jack’s creamery. Or Mid’s. Or fucking Sandy. Or having your older brother buy Bud Light and smashing Mailboxes. Nick would never get out. Sandy would never get out. Mikey did, but it took crashing his dad’s Chevy into the Tuscy River.
“I just don’t get it,” Titus said. And he didn’t
Nick began to drive faster. “What the fuck do you mean? You’ve been gone.You don’t see how his mama looks at us, how they all looked at us. They blamed me, and James, and everyone there for not stoppin’ him. We all knew Mikey wasn’t right. We all knew. And they knew we knew.” Nick gently swerved to avoid hitting a dead possum. “You’re going to college on the government’s dime, we all had to pick up the pieces.”
Titus grew silent, the darkness of the sky crept in the truck and stripped away the meaning of all his words. All Titus heard was desperation. And guilt.
“I miss him.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Titus sighed looked out at the dead streets and loud night sky. “Hey man, would you mind dropping me off at Main Street? I think I wanna walk around a bit.”
“Don’t want to go out with me and Sandy? I think Margaret’s in town.”
“I just want to walk around, I’ll catch up with you later if it’s not too late.”
Nick turned the wheel and parked at the Marathon station. “Alright man, I’ll catch ya later.”
Titus fixated on the Coke bottle, filled up with the night’s moist words, before exiting the truck. “It was nice seeing you, man.”
Titus walked down Main Street and cut down Canal on his walk home. He took in the village, that dot on a dot on a dot on a map that had been his life. He breathed in the smell of bread from Nickle’s and pretended to hear the swipe of EBT cards at Emmert’s market. He walked passed the Wagner’s Pizza, and remembered when Ma let him eat a whole small pizza to himself after his dad left. He breathed in the life and soul of the village. The Village that made him and Nick. And he felt big. He cut down by Stern’s Vet Clinic and looked at the Tuscy River, to try to hear the anything the water might have to say, to see if any trace of Mikey was there looking to forgive. He stared at the water a while. But that made him feel big too.