Phoenix smiled at the tiny, green inchworm on his finger. “He’s doing exercises for us,” he said.
I laughed. “He’s making a little omega sign.”
Phoenix’s smile faded. A furrow grew between his brows and he plopped down in the grass between rows of budding grape vines.
I sat down in front of him. He was frowning at the worm now. “Do you think he’ll become a butterfly?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Do you ever wish you were a butterfly?”
“Instead of human? Yes. Butterflies are much less complicated.”
His eyes found mine. “You don’t want to sit next to me?”
I scooted over and sat next to him. We both watched the worm as he stretched out long, then pulled up into an arch, crawling up Phoenix’s wrist.
“My mom wants to take my Social Security money, I think,” he said. “It’s been her plan all along, I guess. Keep me there, help her breed dogs.” He gently placed the worm on a dangling grapevine and stared down at his hands.
“That’s not right,” I said.
“My dream is to become a professional athlete,” he said, staring at me in an almost challenging way.
“My dream is to be a professional writer,” I said.
“Do you think I could be a professional anything?”
He gazed at me a long while. “I feel like if I stay in Shandon, I’m going to die soon.”
“Why do you feel that way?”
“Signs and symbols, like in movies and songs and patterns.”
“You may be misreading the signs. I do that sometimes. I have that doom feeling, the fear, and I sit around waiting for something that never comes.”
“Never say never,” he said. Then he laid back in the grass and did sit-ups, his lips moving silently as he counted to three hundred.
We trudged back into town and went to the park. He spotted two people over at the tables and made a beeline for them, sitting in the shade at their feet.
I sat next to him and grinned. “Hi. I’m Liz.”
“Oh, you don’t know them?” Phoenix said. “This is Manny and Annalise.”
Manny shook my hand, but Annalise just raised her eyebrows. “I’m, uh, gonna go sit over here.” She picked up her 40 of King Cobra and went to sit at the next table.
We all watched her go. “What did I do?” I said.
Manny shot me an apologetic look and got up. “I’d better go with her.”
Manny trotted over to sit next to his girlfriend, who was shooting me scowls. I looked at Phoenix, who was hanging his head and tearing blades of grass into long strips.
“I don’t even know her,” I said.
“I don’t know why people have to be like that, like when I just want to play softball with them, and then it’s finally my turn and they all want to quit. And Deborah just gave me her mitt and bat and all her stuff and said I could play by myself but I don’t want to play softball by myself.” He grimaced. “I was supposed to go to the gym yesterday, and now I almost wish I had, because then I feel like we’d all still be friends, you know?”
I thought back to the day before. Phoenix and I had been sitting in the grass, talking about nothing, and Deborah had come by. Now the look she’d given me made sense. “Your friends don’t like me, and so they’re punishing you because we hang out together?”
Phoenix glanced at me, but didn’t say anything. He’d accumulated a large pile of grass strips in his lap, and started tying them together in knots.
“I’m sorry, Phoenix. I don’t mean to cause you problems with your friends,” I said. “Maybe it’s better that we don’t hang out.”
He looked up, wide-eyed. “No, no, not at all.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt because of me. I don’t know what I did to these people, but I don’t want you to lose your friends.”
He clutched his knees. “What, you, you don’t like hanging out with me?”
“I love hanging out with you.”
“You want to just give up like that? Because you think that you made me lose my friends? People shouldn’t give up like that. I don’t think people should do that.”
He stared at me with hurt in his eyes, and I had a sudden, overwhelming urge to give him a hug, this bizarrely beautiful man destined to be kicked around and misunderstood his whole life. But I resisted it. He didn’t much like to be touched.
“I’m not giving up,” I said. “I want to be your friend.”
I sighed and raked my fingers through my hair. “Shandon is major drama.”
He gave me an amused look and held up a long, knotted chain of grass, coiling it carefully on my knee.
Later, I texted Mari about how Annalise had treated me, and she told me that Annalise was some notorious Shandon park queen who got in flipped-out, meth-fueled fights with people just for entertainment. That night, I huddled in bed, wondering how I’d managed to end up tangled in Shandon’s complex web of losers and lowlifes. This silly obsession of mine was turning into real business, Gonzo Reporting in the truest sense.
But it was too late to extricate myself. I cared about Phoenix, and I’d made a promise that I wouldn’t give up on him. If Annalise wanted to kick my ass for whatever reason, well, so be it. I’d take a few punches for him. I just hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, or at the very least that I’d be able to keep all my teeth and stay out of jail.
The next day, as my husband and I were coming back from a long bike ride, I spotted Phoenix in front of the library. He smiled and waved at me, and I spun my bike around. “Hey,” I said.
“Hey.” His eyes lingered over my shoulder, his smile fading, and I looked back to see that my husband hadn’t stopped. “He doesn’t like me,” Phoenix said. “Your husband.”
“That’s not true. He’s just not much for hanging out with people.”
“I saw the look he gave me. Why did you stop? Why aren’t you with him?”
“I’m just saying hi, it’s no big deal. Eric doesn’t care that you and I hang out.”
Phoenix gazed down at his shuffling feet. “Are you spending the day with him?”
“Naw, he and my kid are going to go hiking together, then he has work to do.”
“You want to come listen to music with me?”
So after I ate lunch, I came back and found him in the library, quietly flipping through a book about ancient Egyptian culture. We stayed there an hour, reading about pirates and breeds of housecats and cake recipes, before heading out.
As we passed the store, we found his mom sitting on the bench next to a case of Coors. Phoenix picked up the beer and hugged it like it was a teddy bear, dancing around on the sidewalk. I took its place on the bench next to his mom, who gave me a fixed sort of smile that told me she hadn’t figured me out yet. I didn’t blame her.
“Hey,” she said. “What you guys up to? Another hike?”
“Naw, we were at the library.”
Phoenix plopped down next to me, the beer in his lap. “What are you doing, Mom?”
“Waiting for Travis. We’re going on a drive to look at the wildflowers.”
“Can I come?” he asked.
“Sure, of course.”
Just then, Travis pulled up in their black Jaguar, a crack in the windshield that looked deliberate, perhaps a memento of a three-cop evening. I stood up. “I’ll see you later, Phoenix.”
He stared at me wide-eyed. “What, you’re leaving?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Am I just supposed to sit here waiting for you?”
“Come with us,” he said.
I glanced uncertainly at his mom, who shrugged. “Yeah, you’re welcome to come with us.”
So I piled into the back of the Jag with Phoenix, who put the case of beer between his feet and tore it open, downing a whole can before I had time to cringe.
We drove out to Gillis Canyon, a bumpy, narrow road through lonely green hills, now blotched with sprawling patches of yellow, orange, purple, and blue wildflowers. I didn’t know the proper names of any them except lupine, California poppies, and mustard. What they called fiddlehead, goldenrod, and bluebells weren’t the same as the plants I’d known by those names back in Washington, and I wasn’t about to call the spray of lavender blooms “nigger toes”, like Phoenix’s mom did.
Phoenix downed another can of beer and burped. He looked at me. “You want to go hike up there?” He nodded out the window at a willow-choked wash cutting up through a distant saddle. I followed it longingly with my eyes.
“Yeah, I really do. When do you want to do that?”
I blinked, checking the angle of the sun and doing a quick calculation. We were maybe six or seven miles out from Shandon on the roads, and if we wandered too far, as we usually did…
“I don’t think we’d make it back by dark,” I said.
He shrugged, and I glanced back out at the countryside, briefly wishing I were fifteen years younger, with no obligations. We could wander out, and if we didn’t make it back tonight, who would care?
“I don’t think you should go out there,” his mom said. “I think it’s private property.”
I shook my head to clear it, taking a deep breath of real-world air.
“There’s no fences,” Phoenix said.
“Still,” his mom said. “You don’t want to mess with these ranchers. And she’s right, you wouldn’t be back by dark.”
Phoenix crushed the empty can of beer between his fingers and burped loudly. “Some people make me claustrophobic. Why you gotta be like that, Mom? Liz got me some sage, and you threw it away. You don’t want me to do anything good and healthy. You’re just trying to make me retarded. You’re just trying to spread your fat and drunk around, and give the world a wet cunt slap.”
I hid my unwilling smile behind my hand. “Phoenix, you’re being mean.”
He sat up straighter. “Here’s a joke for you. Yo mama so fat, she’s gay. Here’s another one. Yo mama so gay, she’s fat.”
I pressed my palms into my eyes, trying hard not to laugh.
Back in Shandon, Phoenix stuffed his pockets full of beer before jumping out of the car. He stalked off towards the park and, after shooting his mom an apologetic smile, I followed him.
I had to jog to catch up, and he realized this, stopping to wait for me. “Phoenix, you shouldn’t drink,” I said. “It makes you mean.”
“Sometimes it’s the things that need said.” He looked sideways at me with a faint smile, and handed me a beer.
He headed towards a table full of people under the sycamores. When I saw who was there, I stopped. “Phoenix, I can’t go there. I’m gonna go home.”
“That’s Annalise. She doesn’t like me.”
He gave me a long look, still with that faint smile. “Don’t give up on me, Liz. Don’t give up.”
He headed for the table again, and I stared after him.
Shandon was a very small town. There was no way I’d avoid Annalise forever.
I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and followed.