A story by Aaron Couch, first place winner,
The Phi Kappa Sigma Fiction Prizes, 2001


Anthem

      This story is not about Ricky. It is about you and the sensation of jiggling a loose tooth back and forth with your tongue. It is about the door jam and the smell of your leather baseball mitt. It is about stepping on bees in the outfield and eating too much candy on Halloween. It is about waking up one morning knowing what that warm feeling was. It is about reaching down into your sheets and slightly damp underwear thinking back into your dreams, back through the hazy degrees of friction and consumption to the point at which your newness began to leak. This story is about confusion and the ineluctable curvature of the female form. This story is about your wet dream, your first time, sliding into third base as hard as you can, and the Friday after school you got high over at Ricky's house. You and Ricky and one other snuck out after his parents had gone to sleep. You and Ricky and one other snuck out after his parents had gone to sleep. You and Ricky and one other snuck out of his house and walked several blocks over to the scattering of trees next to his high school football field and smoked the first bowl you had ever seen in your life. This is a ritual that presents itself over and over to you in your mind. Tiptoeing down the back stairs from his room on the third floor. The light of the kitchen emerging from the doorway. Unlocking the screen door and slipping out one by one into his backyard. At the same moment silently walking back up the stairs, unsteady, unsure of yourself, engulfed in the paralytic rush of the herb. Sitting back down in a circle on the floor of Ricky's room trying to speak. Pursing your lips and heaving your esophagus unable to pin down the movements long enough for control. Feeling the strands of Ricky's shag carpet with the palm of your hands. Looking up at Ricky and his friend Art and not understanding them at all. Thinking it's weird that the three of you are sitting in front of each other in Ricky's room without words. Trying to remember how to make words seeping into new thoughts awash in new thoughts fighting your own battle for comprehension lost in a foreign clemency, stranded on your side of a gulf where phonemes fall like an opaque rain, muted by the impossible demands of articulation and the slow and unpleasant revelation of what high really means and the more meaningful revelation that as you sputter forth as the sounds fall limply from the tip of your tongue that Ricky and Art had left you some time ago and were playing Atari at the other end of the room. At the same moment in the small line of trees next to Garfield High's varsity football field you watched in staggered movement, even now in a grotesque and staggered motion, Ricky produce a tiny bag. Even now years later Ricky moves in impossible gestures reaching out of his pocket with a tiny bag, what you now know of as a dime bag, extending it forth between the three of you as one would proof the existence of another world. Through the flux and crucible of time, through the loss and degradation of your fishnet memory Ricky stands forever brazen with the drug. The unusually small bag stood at the end of his outstretched hand full of shredded grass that was the same dark color as the trees and field around you. Ricky opened the bag and inhaled deeply offering you and Art to do the same. Art took a sound whiff himself and it was your turn and you hesitated but only for a moment thinking back to the time last summer at a sleep over when Ricky admitted how afraid he was of drugs and how much comfort you took in that. Ricky was always the wild one and you held that as a constant in your world as constant as waking up to Saturday morning cartoons and the annual trip to the Eagles game for your birthday.

      You wanted more than anything to believe Ricky, that nothing would ever change and you would not to have to take stock of the opening rift between your friends and what you were told was right and you would not have to make those decisions that would reverberate to the deepest depths of your stomach. It was in fact your stomach through which you made the hard decisions. It was you stomach that told you of impending danger, the girls you could no longer dismiss and the rules you would have to break. That all weather prognosticator that puerile spidy sense was your ultimate conscience as you held onto the succor of your parents' good grace. Of course it wasn't all that simple, you had been passed joints before and you had taken the perfunctory hit, as small as you could get away with, but this time was different, the bowl was wrong it was illegal was against the law and you can still feel your stomach fluttering violently as at that moment under the cover of night and the trees of Garfield High School you stuck your nose in the tiny plastic bag and inhaled in a reverie of guilt and confusion. You closed your eyes and inhaled at that moment and your mind became muddled in a cloud of nerves and displacement a diffuse fog that spread over many centuries that fell like sand from the sky on the beach at your summer home.

      You opened your eyes looking at the dark forms of Art and Ricky in front of the trees at the edge of Garfield High that separated the school from the large homes that were adjacent to it and returned to your senses with the only thought that would come to you. It was a thought that pulsed with vivacity and truth a thought that set itself apart and demanded attention the kind of thought that if lost would never be useful again. Hamburgers. It smells like hamburgers you said and Art agreed adding that the bag might be bad but Ricky dismissed you both unfurling his glass bowl brandishing the unquestionable superiority of one who had done this before. The bowl was otherworldly, an anachronism of some futuristic era. It was bulbous and amorphous, a souvenir that Ricky purchased on South Street for fourteen dollars. You and Art watched as Ricky leaned down and stuffed the bowl. Ricky pinched a tiny amount from the tiny bag placing it into the hole in its round head repeating several times. Ricky stood up and held the prize before you. Ricky went first lighting the weed and taking a deep breath. Ricky passed it next to Art reasserting the hierarchy because Art lived closer to Ricky and was better at baseball. Art also knew what he was doing Art always knew what he was doing Art would not fuck it up. Art pursed his lips and put the instrument to his mouth. He struck several matches before one caught. He sucked in and exhaled a large cloud looking as satisfied as his pretension would allow. He passed it to you and you couldn't exactly get it. You couldn't find the balance between the lighting the match and holding the foreign object. You put it up to your lips and tried to light the match. It was so close to your lips the lips you ate with the virgin lips that had never ever done this before and had never even touched a girls so Ricky gave you assistance cupping his small hands around the top of the bowl to protect the flame telling you repeatedly to suck in. All three of you had lit up and at first you felt nothing but stared at the orange embers glowing at the end of the bowl. You looked up at the purple sky and the multitude of pointed light watching as a light breeze raked the top of the black trees. Ricky told the two of you to huddle in closer to get as close as possible so that no one could see your flame. You thought it was sort of disgusting your heads almost touching in your circle breathing the fumes of grass all over each other. The three of you were like a human pipe--the refuse of your fire billowing up into the slightly chill fall air. The fall air of your city bathed you as you sucked and sucked and sucked all the while concentrating with all the intensity you could muster on your throat and your fear as you inhaled the gas and exchange of your friends that you would begin coughing violently and how unacceptable that would be. You managed through every inhale and exhale through every breath and expectation of the next not to let that itch on the back of your throat explode and maintained your dignity as at that same moment you were back in Ricky's room noticing for the first time that Ricky and Art were playing Atari without you. It was like noticing that someone had turned off the music and you were not very good at Atari anyway and wanted to listen to something and altered your attention to Ricky's large stereo system. Ricky's stereo was a source of intense admiration and incredulity since the first time he had shown it to you as your only supply of music at home was an alarm clock and you would not receive a real stereo system until your sixteenth birthday three and a half years later. The thing was a behemoth, a sophisticated instrument with dark sexy lines that shimmered with significance and refinement. Nothing you owned was so multifaceted so audaciously constructed or so expensive. It even played compact discs. The two speakers spread a foot apart on either side of the main consul had an animalistic fervor--sat like coiled lions--were bastions of the most powerful and profound faculty imaginable in the world of an urban youth: noise. You, suddenly drawn by this energy, the siren allure of Ricky's stereo walked over and sat down directly in front of it. You lifted your finger and pushed the round power button. The LCD screen immediately lit up as your eyes lit up and things began happening levels started to assert themselves tiny lights began to move rhythmically and the music poured forth as if bursting a damn. You cringed momentarily unsure of the intrusion unsure of what you were listening to. It was the radio, some 80s rock before they called it 80s rock. You turned on the CD player knowing it held a U2 album because you had listened to it earlier that day. You did not own this album and its songs were still fresh and new to you. The music began softly, gingerly, each careful note the herald of a great procession. You turned up the volume waiting placidly with every stitch of your frame. Its energy eclipsed everything else as the room the walls the world contracted to the distance between you and the speaker. You stared intensely at it more intensely than you ever had at anything in your life as you became an extension of the speaker itself a conduit bridging external elements. The music was loud it was quaking you could feel it in your hands resting on the floor and through your hollow chest. The chorus kicked in like a flash of lightening. That crackling went straight to your heart and your stomach, its reverberations splitting and reuniting you with every chord. You understood for the first time what sound was. Sound was clear and sweet. Sound was passion and love. Sound was the thundering voice of life and death. The perfect cadence and beat of the base echoed your pulse. You followed the swells of the keyboard and guitar. As the lyrics struck you, pierced you with revelations far too personal and true, flee from destruction, into the light, singing ha, ah le le le da day, you opened yourself to the impossible sadness of the world. I took the apple, put it up to my mouth, I see my future, but there's no way out. This melodious dolor saturated you. It filled you with warmth and hope. You heard the time, from the burning tree, you whispered its name, above its scream . As you sat high in the corner of Ricky's room inches away from two very large speakers that were turned up as loud as they could go you had what felt like an epiphany but was more powerful and complete. For the first time you understood what was going on you understood everything that sounds were sounds that things were what they were and would always be for any given moment in a determinacy and permanence that had never before revealed itself. You know the truth, was lost in the wind, it picked me up, and I floated away singing, ah le le le da day. You knew that the voice you were hearing was coming from the speaker and that sound was coming from no where else in the world other than that brown box with a soft black fabric draped taut over the front of it. Ah le le le da day, ah le le da day. Ricky's mom entered the room. Like a tear in the fabric of a pitch she opened Ricky's door. She turned on the light and you were blissfully ignorant as she reached down in front of you to turn off the stereo. At that moment she yelled something wild at Ricky and Art and grabbed you by the wrist. She picked you up forcefully and dragged you from Ricky's room and into the guest bedroom down the hall. She sat you down on the bed in the guest bedroom. She was now yelling at you but you could not understand a word of it. She was screaming but it was all so calm you could have just sat and watched forever but she turned off the light and left you. Before she left Ricky's mom leaned over and hugged you, wrapping her arms around you, squeezing you for several seconds as if confirming herself. It was only then were you wholly confused leaning back in bed covering yourself with the blanket. It was only at that point did you feel sorry for your actions and how reckless you were as your legs still tingled but you were no longer high. It is only now as you sit wasted in your room as a street car rumbles several blocks away thinking of Ricky that you understand how much you must have stunk of the weed, how much it must have saturated your clothes, your hair, and your body and how remarkable it is that you never heard about this night ever again not from Ricky's mom or even from yours. You think about this as you pour another cup of whisky and walk over to your window. You think about Ricky as the street din dances several floors below. The sounds of the city, the staggered engine of a SEPTA bus and an ambulance siren, are echoed by the uneven staccato of your breath against the glass. Ricky went on to become a slob. You wouldn't recognize him it has been so long. You knew him in the sort of way that you know someone but don't anymore. You think about your life and all that has happened since the last time you've seen him. You want some sort of closure from its coarse narrative. You want to make sense of it all, you want everything explained as if it were as simple as Ricky's mom clasping you goodnight or Ricky restoring himself from the past for the last time.