Summer of the Beta Dog


by CS DeWildt

Shane was my best friend at the lake house, my grandparents' place. I saw him every summer since I was eight and there was something that comforted me about that, seeing a certain predictable future, a bond of friendship untouched for seasons and picked up again like no time had passed. This is what I tried to think about while Dad read me the riot act.

"You don't have any sense!" I knew that. He'd said it plenty over the past few days. I'd been in a touch of trouble that had resolved itself quickly, legally anyway, bud Dad wouldn't let it go. After the last day of freshman year a couple of my friends and I broke into the concession building next to the football field. I don't know what we'd expected to find there, not the jackpot we did. There was a cash box and enough candy to keep us sugared all summer, but Big D, that's Donny, he got stuck in the ordering window and there was nothing we could do to get him out. Markus and Terry ran with the goods, but me, I was too soft and I stayed with his cries until I saw old Joe the maintenance guy mowing the field in the morning. What he did was call the Fire department and what they did was call the police. I played it that we were just screwing around and sent Big D through the window on a dare but he didn't have the sense to come up with the same story, I guess being wedged in that tiny window all night and then left behind by the others had gotten to his loyalties. He spilled the beans and he must have forgotten about me, but that was kind of typical I was starting to think.

So the entire gang went down and the school was gracious enough to skip the charges and just load us all up with a suspension and detention for the following year. We did have to pay for the city's rescue effort, five thousand split four ways, which to a fifteen year old kid might as well be a million. Dad was torn because what he wanted me to do was stay under house arrest for the summer, but the fine meant I had to earn some cash. I'd been working out at the lake for the past three summers, at Wyck's grocery, putting the money away for college. So despite his reservations and need to punish, Dad was driving me the two hours away to leave me relatively unsupervised for the summer. And he just kept on talking.

"You need to think about what kind of man you want to be Curtis," he said. He rarely called me Curtis. What kind of man do you want to be?"

"I dunno."

"You think it's all fun and there aren't any consequences. It's those friends. What are they doing this summer?"

"I dunno."

"Well they're not working off the debt, are they?"

"Probably not." I knew for a fact they weren't. Markus and Terry both had older brothers who'd put their parents through worse. Twelve hundred bucks for a little bad judgment was the status quo as far as their folks were concerned. I'd been over by Terry's once since the incident and his dad was laughing about it. And Big D we found out got his fine waived since he came clean and ratted out the rest of us. My staying by his side didn't amount to much as I'd tried to lie our way out of the whole thing.

Dad went on, "I tell you. I don't really care about your job. I know you need to make money, but I'd pay it myself if I thought I could trust you to stay put this summer. But I know you'll be out with those kids, probably getting into more trouble."

"You could hire a baby sitter." I said.

"Keep cracking jokes, but that's about what you deserve." The words stung a bit even though I'd been the one to suggest it. I tuned out the rest of the lecture and just watched the pine trees give way to flats as we moved South on the 131 toward Gun Lake.

***

Grandpa dropped me off for work the next morning and the last thing that crossed my mind was that I'd fall in love, but that's exactly what happened. Her name was Ashley and she was working the register next to me. We shared a cigarette before work and the whole morning all I could think was that name, the soft "A" followed by the order to hush, as if speaking her name were some sin, and then everything made good again by that cute trailing "ley". She was tall and lean and tan and her hair was like the chocolate pudding on special in aisle four. She had a freckle on her left cheek that rose when she smiled, as if it just knew what to do to keep her beautiful, whatever her expression.

Shane worked at the store too and I wondered what he thought of her, having been working a full week already since his school let out earlier. I got the answer when he came in a bit later, taller than the previous summer, but just as smiley. He gave me a slap on the hand as he passed by and then gave Ashley a kiss on the mouth. I gripped a can of pork and beans I was running over the scanner and thought about smashing his face with it.

"What the hell you think you're doin'?" the old man said. I looked up at him, my stomach still dropping. "You rang me for that canna beans two times!"

"Sorry," I said, flat as my heart. I fumbled through the cancelation and just stared at the back of her head. Ashley turned to me and smiled. I gave her something back that I knew was a grotesque approximation of happiness and her face kind of twisted up, but that freckle knew just what to do.

The gods must have felt merciful because I spent the rest of the day in the back, behind the scenes unloading trucks and sorting dry goods for the floor. I knew Shane was up there smiling it up, chatting with the customers in a way I couldn't. I'd always felt fortunate that I had Shane, or more that he'd accepted me. I was not too good with people I didn't know well and the whole thing going on between him and Ashley shouldn't have been much of a surprise. He was a boy scout, full of confidence. Even in my best fantasy it took half the summer to work up the nerve to tell Ashley how pretty she was.

The day dragged, nothing new, but this time it wasn't because of the anticipation of whatever the night had to offer. Rather, I held the ache of unrequited love, made doubly bad due to my age and then triple so because the girl I desired was with my friend. I had no idea what was planned for the evening or if the plans even included me, but the idea of late night pontoon trips to the sand bar for a swim, or even just smoking pot on the beach, none of it sounded appealing and I wished I was back at home, serving out my sentence alongside the migrants, pulling up celery from the muck fields until I could pay off my debt to society.

Shane poked his head through the swing doors, mouth lit up. "Hey man! C'mon! It's time to go!"

I left the boxes of corn flakes for the morning and followed him out. I expected Ashley to be in tow, but Shane and I were alone in the dim store. He'd come back for me. Ashley was waiting in the dark lot, smoking a long cigarette. She handed it to me and I took it, tasted the lip gloss she wore and handed the smoke to Shane. He waved it away.

"Quit," he said. And then it was silent save for the cicadas, recently emerged from a slumber of years.

"Another summer, man!" Shane's enthusiasm was usually contagious, but I'd resolved to be the dark presence and only shrugged. I told them about my troubles and they laughed, not at my circumstance but over the detail of my friend Big D stuck in that little concession window.

"Did you get arrested?" Ashley asked. I said no and I swear she was a little disappointed.

Ashley drove us back my grandparents' place. Shane's were two doors down. I went in to say hello and goodnight, but they were already asleep in front of the TV. Rodney Dangerfield was doing stand-up and a particularly raunchy line made me smile despite myself. I stepped quietly to the back of the house to my bedroom. I changed my shirt and grabbed my bag of weed and rolling papers from my duffel. I'd tried my hardest to let the lovebirds ditch me, but the prospect of marijuana was too strong for Ashley. Shane had mentioned that I knew where to get it and when I said I already had it her face lit up and that freckle moved and I knew I had no choice but to give into her every whim and desire. I stopped at the fridge to search for something to eat and settled for a few spoonfuls of the leftover stew and a fried chicken leg. I washed the grease from my hands and face and listened to Rodney do his whole "no respect" thing.

"I hear you."

Like the scout he was, Shane was already loading up the fire pit with a teepee of logs. Ashley sat smoking and watching him. They heard me approach and Ashley's eyes went from my face to my hands. I slapped my pocket assuring her I indeed possessed what she wanted. We sat back on folding chairs, theirs closer together than mine, and I rolled up a joint quickly under the orange crackling glow.

"You roll pretty good," she said and I smiled despite myself, happy to be of value to her.

We smoked and talked and looked at the stars glow the way they only seemed to during summers at the lake. Shane pointed out constellations and I called him out on a few bullshit one's he tried to pass off like Olga the Fat Swede and Big D the Thief and Curtis the Loyal Sap . We laughed and the pot mellowed me and it let me look at Ashley and not feel hurt, just admire her face. She was a collection of stars; I imagined her creation by the ancients, connecting the dots of the most beautiful creature they'd ever seen, the freckle the brightest star of all.

Shane and I caught up on the previous year, how he'd nearly failed his driving test by getting into an accident in a parking lot with his instructor. I talked about the trouble I'd been into, minor stuff, but good stories of late night infractions and escapes from pursuers of every authoritative stripe.

"You're crazy, man." Shane said. I took a long hit from the joint and stared at both of them as they looked back at me, waiting for some sort of response.

"I know," I squeaked, holding the smoke. And then we laughed like I'd actually said something funny.

"Baby," she said in a voice that killed me. "Will you go get me a Coke?"

Shane stood, a little wobbly and we laughed again. "I only do this stuff up here with you!" He said.

"You're a bad influence. Want a Coke?"

"Sure," I said. He left and Ashley watched him. As soon as we heard his footsteps on the wooden deck of his grandparents' she turned to me.

"Why have you been staring at me all day?"

I didn't think. "Because you're just about the prettiest thing I've ever seen and all I can think about since I saw you this morning is kissing you." I expected her to laugh, or take offense, but she did neither. She smiled her smile and came to me, kneeled down between my legs, looked up at me.

She licked her lips. "So, why don't you kiss me then?"

Dad's words came back to me: "What kind of man do you want to be?"

And looking at her, I knew. God did I know.


CS DeWildt is a liar. He wants to hurt you. His work has appeared in a variety of print and webzines. He is the author Dead Animals, a collection of short stories and flash, as well as the crime novella Candy and Cigarettes. Please visit CS at http://csdewildt.com