Sunset over highway in Central Florida

Yellow Light, Green Light

By Kevin Clouther

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We were desperate to be real, a word we didn’t investigate, so sure were we of its meaning.

 
Sometimes we had to drive a while before it happened.

It went like this: the person sitting behind the driver opened his door. He left it open. He sprinted to the car behind him and knocked, politely, on the driver’s side window. The expression the sprinter wore was key, for if he projected the appropriate mix of desperation and trustworthiness, then the driver might decide to lower his window. At this point, a number of things could happen.

One thing—a common thing, the best from the sprinter’s vantage—was that the driver could freeze. In such a situation, anything was possible.

The sprinter might do something simple like shout (to frighten, to jolt the driver from his daydream). Or he might drop a note (blank, preferably) in the driver’s breast pocket. Or he might remove the driver’s hat, deposit it on his own head, and sprint back to the open door a half-second before the light turned green. Always the car left then.

To go where? It depended on the night and the driver. We each had our own ideas. There were three of us. Never two—we wouldn’t go out then, wouldn’t even mention it.

It was easiest for Nick to get away. His mom barely paid attention, so preoccupied was she with whatever man she’d fallen for, whatever new way of seeing the world she assumed. Nick discussed these men distantly, as though they’d entered some other person’s life. Mostly, he didn’t say anything. There was dignity to his silence if that’s what you wanted to hear.

Billy couldn’t drive. It wasn’t his fault. He was blind or almost. He tried to explain, but it was hard to understand. It wasn’t something anyone wanted to think about, especially Billy, especially once we were driving.

We didn’t drive fast. Driving fast is how you get caught. Not that we kept anything dangerous inside the car, not drugs, certainly not guns. Nobody had a girlfriend. Girlfriends could be dangerous, allegedly. Well, sometimes drugs, but only weed and never more than a joint. Two joints tops.

Is there anything half as perfect as sharing a joint on A1A? We made the driver abstain. We couldn’t afford to be sloppy, which is why we smoked a nearly odorless strain (loyal Billy didn’t disclose his source) and complemented the scent with the most pungent cigarettes we could find. The martyred driver smoked these cigarettes alone. It was understood that he would be rewarded for his sacrifice.

Half a joint in, the trees got greener. Not greener, exactly. They were a different green, simultaneously more and less real. The leaves shimmered. At certain hours, the light could turn them a green so light it was yellow. We felt bad for Billy then.

We played music loud to compensate. We were living through a golden age of sound. Sometimes we came to a red light and were startled to discover music still playing, so complete was the synchronization between our movement and the song’s. In the moments where one track passed into the next, we nodded in silent appreciation. To interrupt the solemnity of such moments would have been obscene.

The wind was with us always, a cool tickle along the wet crown of the scalp. We were glad to sweat. The heat made us feel like we were paying for something; just because we didn’t want to get caught didn’t mean we were unwilling to pay.

We never had a destination. Sometimes we drove up and down A1A all afternoon and into the evening, turning around like a dog approaching an electric fence when we reached the end of our territory. Our boundaries were hard to map. Each person’s was different. There were places Billy wouldn’t go that Nick would: we admired this and were frightened by it. We were different around Nick, more willing to attempt things we wouldn’t have the courage to attempt on our own.

It was Nick who came up with the traffic light idea, and he was the first sprinter. He didn’t tell us the first time. When he opened the door, we thought he was sick, but that didn’t explain why he was outside the car. It didn’t explain any of the things he was doing. Was he talking with the driver behind us? What would possess him to do such a thing? He didn’t provide answers when he returned.

It was contagious. Soon we were all thinking, what next, saying, What next? Nick didn’t pretend to know. He said keep going, so we did. Past buggy, too-long grass. Off A1A and over the bridge. The lights on the Intracoastal shined for us. Where were the ships headed? We knew as little of their trajectories as they knew of ours.

Then the cheap corner stores, selling sad-looking boxes, dented cans, nothing green. We could see everything through the yellow windows. At one red light, Nick leapt from the car and smashed his face against a window. We saw the shape of a man rising. We heard the bell above the door tinkle.

Nick dove into the car. Go, he shouted. We obeyed. In this way, he became the leader.

One run gave way to the next. Each person tried to outdo the person before him. If Nick took a hat from a man’s head, then Billy needed to go one step further. That this escalation would lead inevitably to disaster was understood but never discussed. The danger had to be present to be real. The rest of our lives were so boring. Or, if not boring, then dangerous in ways that felt dull, like we were drowning in water that only came to our ankles. We jumped out without any sense of what we were jumping into, recognizing that any time might be the last. The possibility of not being caught was too bleak to consider. With a mix of enthusiasm and dread, we waited for the end.

There was plenty to do while we waited. We didn’t discuss home while driving, which was a time for important things, the girls we didn’t dare approach, the improbable ways we could make money, the dreams we only hinted at clinging to. Who wants to hear about someone else’s dream? Easier to take something that isn’t yours. Easier still to watch someone else take it.

We didn’t look up to him. We didn’t envy him or want to be him, but we believed in him, saw in him the authenticity that we valued above everything else.

Nick was first and boldest, but Billy was cleverest. He didn’t take so much as convince others to give. He could do this quickly. It hadn’t yet occurred to him to use his powers for good. He was newly aware of the looks that were blossoming into attention, girls who turned around in their chairs and lingered long enough for him to smell their shampoo, maybe their mother’s perfume. A trace scent of antiperspirant made Billy want to live forever.

He didn’t trust this attention, though he craved it. We were as surprised as he was. It hadn’t occurred to us that he was good looking. We had no idea what makes a man attractive. We thought it has something to do with physical strength. We were sure money helped, though we didn’t know how. There was nobody to ask.

The time Billy came back with the lit cigarette, he didn’t explain how. He didn’t even run; he walked back to the car, the cigarette bouncing between his lips. It moved faster than he did.

“What happened?” we asked.

“He offered.”

“He offered to give you his cigarette?”

Billy smiled. We tried to look at his smile the way we imagined the girls looking. It was hard because he looked like Billy. We didn’t know what we were supposed to look for. We kept seeing the kid who slashed his leg crawling over a wire fence, who threw up next to the pool after eating nine cheeseburgers at a party. If the girls didn’t see that, what did they see?

We’d never know. The girls may have seen more than we did, but nobody sees everything. Seeing one thing keeps you from seeing something else. We didn’t see the extent to which we’d been won. We didn’t look up to him. We didn’t envy him or want to be him, but we believed in him, saw in him the authenticity that we valued above everything else. Billy, more than anyone, was real. We were desperate to be real, a word we didn’t investigate, so sure were we of its meaning. Certain songs were real. Lawns were not real. Dogs and children, surprisingly, could be real. Never advice, math teachers, flags.

Politely, Billy had absorbed the worry of one teacher. He offered half his attention to whatever she said, saving the other half for his own unspeakable concerns. Billy cycled through these concerns relentlessly, in search of the calibration that would put everything into place. His worries were only amplified by the attention he gave them.

But the teacher was patient. He viewed her patience as weakness. The more attention she gave—the more fully she treated him as a human being with a range of emotions, rather than something to endure—the more he resisted. Billy had learned to distrust kindness. He looked for the stronger emotion behind it. Usually, he found it. That he hadn’t with Mrs. Murphy was irrelevant; it was only a matter of time.

“I could see in his face,” Billy said, “that he wanted me to have his cigarette.”

With great luxury, he ashed out the car window.

“I think that’s the record,” Nick admitted.

We all agreed. The question was what happened next.

“We keep driving,” Billy answered.

That was the night we drove farther than we’d ever driven, past the strip malls we recognized but never visited, the always empty parking lots, the weedy plains whose signs promised construction that nobody believed would arrive.

“What town is this anyways?” Nick asked.

We thought things might get better, but instead they got worse. We wondered if some disaster had occurred, a highly localized tornado or unpublicized famine. The pestilence insisted upon Sunday mornings never seemed remote. We were sensitive to the worlds concealed from us. We were uncovering new secrets all the time.

There were fewer cars. Soon we were the only things moving.

“What are we supposed to do?” Nick asked.

“Same thing we always do,” Billy said.

But we were the only car at the next light, possibly in the whole town. Slowly, a man began to cross before us. Although it was over eighty degrees, he wore several shirts. His movement seemed an affront to the human body. He didn’t use his legs so much as battle them, as though they were enemies enlisted to keep him from reaching the other side. We didn’t see anything on either side. He was still there when the light turned green.

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Nick asked.

Billy pretended not to be able to see.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Nick decided.

The man stopped and looked toward us, as though he’d just noticed the car. Was it unusual for cars to be on the road here? We waited for clarification.

Billy lit another cigarette. His window was barely open. The other windows were closed. The doors were locked. Nobody inside the car was going anywhere. We waited for the man to walk past us. It was taking a long time.

I imagined a different outcome, one where I was neither killed nor saved but smuggled into the car. There my captors revealed what I’d long assumed, that I belonged somewhere else.

“Maybe that’s enough,” Billy said.

When the man finally completed his crossing, we headed where we always went in such instances: the beach. It looks the same everywhere, especially at night. At least when you’re facing the ocean. It’s what’s behind you that changes.

“It’s definitely the record,” Nick said. “Taking a cigarette from a man’s mouth. Nothing comes close.”

“Taking a hat comes close,” Billy said diplomatically.

“There’s no comparison.”

Of course, Nick was right.

“What’s the real story,” he insisted.

“I told you,” Billy said.

“You didn’t.”

Billy leaned into the sand. He was happy: to have the record, to be out of a car that wasn’t going anywhere, to breathe salt air. The breeze off the water came to him as nourishment. He consumed it in large, unembarrassed gulps.

Nick rocked forward. He looked to Billy and then the ocean. Nick took out a cigarette just to slide it back into the pack. He seemed small beside Billy, though they were the same height. Nick’s constant movement diminished him, like a person violently treading water and therefore doomed to sink.

“What do you think?” Nick asked.

Billy buried his bare feet in the sand. He regarded his toes gravely.

“You think he’s telling the real story?” Nick asked.

Only then did I realize he was speaking to me. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said quickly.

“You must have an opinion,” Nick said.

“Not really.”

Billy turned to me with benign curiosity, content to avoid Nick’s interrogation. Nick cared, in Billy’s estimation, too much. This position annoyed Nick. He needed to know exactly what happened in order to surpass it. Why do something if you don’t care what happens?

“We were all there,” I said cryptically, irrelevantly.

“I know where we were,” Nick said.

“I just—”

“What, Jim?”

Billy crept toward the water. Nick ignored his departure. He smiled in a way that wasn’t encouraging or conspiratorial but self-satisfied, as if it were only a matter of time before I came to his side.

I loved Nick, who never held my towering unpopularity against me but instead insisted on friendship. Although he couldn’t eradicate my loneliness, he offered a belonging that I craved so desperately I found myself wordless for long stretches, reluctant to expose myself as unworthy. But Nick never made me feel that way. He treated me as decently as he treated anyone, including Billy. All Nick asked in return was loyalty. 

“I don’t feel right,” I said.

When I stood, I realized it was true. It came as a relief, even as I stumbled through the sand. I was moving away from the ocean and toward the dark. Eventually, a staircase appeared. I scrambled up it, hands and feet, like an animal. My speed surprised me. I didn’t think about what I was running from. I didn’t think about what I was running toward. My animal brain didn’t think.

The stairs opened to a field enclosed by palms, which revealed themselves only when wind whipped their fronds into the moonlight. I could hear animals scurrying from one end of the field to the other. There was a mindless desperation to their movement, as if they couldn’t remember who was the predator and what was the prey. I considered my place in this ecosystem.

I waded into the field. The closer I got to the middle, or what I thought was the middle, the more I began to feel like myself. So commenced the game of courting and banishing my greatest fear, that Nick tolerated me as a joke that would be revealed any moment, that Billy was in on the joke, that everyone, even my teachers and family, was in on the joke. In such a situation, the only reasonable thing would be to dig a deep hole and then jump into it.

It wasn’t a field, I discovered, but a parking lot. The solitary car in the lot identified itself as my own (my mother’s). Was Nick only friends with me because of the car? Although A1A remained invisible, other cars soon announced themselves. I continued in their direction. He grabbed my arm just before one zoomed past us.

“Jesus,” he said. “Didn’t you see that?”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You almost got killed!”

Billy ran up, and Nick explained what had happened. Or rather what hadn’t. Because I wasn’t killed. I was fine. I followed the taillights of the car, which never stopped, never swerved, never even tapped the horn. That’s how invisible I was.

I imagined a different outcome, one where I was neither killed nor saved but smuggled into the car. There my captors revealed what I’d long assumed, that I belonged somewhere else.

We’re taking you to your real life now, they said.

Of course, I said. Except, can we go back for my friends?

They laughed.

Why are you laughing?

Do you want to go or not?

Nick punched my arm. Reflexively, I punched his arm back. I waited for the next punch.

“You’re really out of it,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “I owe you one.”

He shook his head, causing a cigarette to drop from his lip. He was more frightened than I was. But the cigarette got him talking. He planned to get the record back. He wouldn’t say how. He didn’t mention the car again. It was Billy who studied me, as though he knew where I’d been and wanted to know when they were coming for him. Billy would go.

 

 

Kevin CloutherKevin Clouther is the author of We Were Flying to Chicago: Stories. He is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha Writer’s Workshop, where he serves as program coordinator of the MFA in Writing. He lives with his wife and two children in Omaha.

Header photo by Javier Cruz Acosta, courtesy Shutterstock.

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