Levi’s dad, Greg, had a problem with the neighbors. They were loud, their dead lawn was an eyesore, and their rooster woke him every morning. Every Sunday after church their guests parked in front of his house like they owned the place. He didn’t like the music they listened to, or when they washed their cars in the driveway, but mostly he didn’t like that they spoke Spanish.
One day he said to Levi, “This country has gone to shit.” He was at the front window looking through the blinds, watching the neighbors drink Tecate in their front yard.
“I bet it always sucked,” said Levi. He was lying on the couch, supposedly catching up on math homework.
“Nobody’s worth a damn anymore. Promise me something,” Greg said, turning to Levi and taking a long sip of his cold coffee, topped with whiskey.
“Okay,” said Levi.
“Promise me that you’ll never trust anybody.”
“Sure,” said Levi.
“Promise me that you’ll never let anyone make a fool of you.”
“Alright,” said Levi.
“And never listen to women,” Greg said, sweeping his arms out wide; a bit of the spiked coffee sloshed out onto the floor. “That will ruin you every time.”
“Sounds good Greg,” said Levi, finishing the doodle he’d been working on in the math book. He’d added nipples and a mustache to Suzy, who was showing Robbie how to calculate the height of a basketball hoop. He’d given Robbie a big boner with a smiley face.
Greg turned back to the window. “This country,” he said, shaking his head.
“Yeah,” said Levi, “Fuck this country!” He threw his math book to the ground and jumped on it.
“Hey,” said Greg. “You watch your mouth.”
“Death to America!” said Levi, kicking the textbook across the room.
“Little shit,” said Greg, leaving the window and rushing Levi. But Levi was too quick. He ducked and elbowed Greg in the ribs and ran off, out the back door. It had been a long time since Greg had gotten hands on him. Levi was tougher now. He went around the house and down the driveway. He flipped off his house, knowing Greg was watching from the window.
He walked down the street. It was a sunny afternoon. Some little kids were blowing bubbles. The bubbles caught the sunlight and turned pink and blue. The kids giggled wildly as a great big bubble drifted up into the trees, but when they saw Levi they grabbed their stuff and ran into their house. A few bubbles still floated on the wind. Levi poked one and when it popped it left a little ring of moisture in the air, but only for a second.
He decided to go to Vanessa’s. She lived a couple streets over so he cut through some old fogey’s yards to get there. No one said anything, but one old man did watch him with a grimace from his porch. Levi laughed at him. Vanessa’s yard was surrounded by this saggy chain link fence and filled with rusted farm equipment that her dad collected at country auctions. There were a few scythes leaning against trees, and about a dozen splintered wagon spokes, and there was even a corroded tractor half buried in pine needles. The back porch was concealed in new, dark screen but the steps had all rotted away so Levi had to jump up to it. He tried to be quiet in case the dad was home. He looked through the kitchen window and didn’t see anyone, so he went to the far end of the porch and tapped Vanessa’s window. After a minute her face rose up behind the milky glass.
She slid the window open. “Hey,” she said.
“What’s up?” he said.
She shrugged. “Bored,” she said.
“Me too,” he said. “Can I come in?”
“Sure,” she said.
She let him in the back door. After awhile of sitting on her bed she let him kiss her, and they made out a bit, but she was all tense and bored and she pushed his hands away when he went under her shirt. They listened to music; she liked this pop-punk stuff with girls singing tough about break-ups that he didn’t care for. She had some old Rolling Stone magazines and he leafed through them, but all the albums had been out for awhile, all the concerts had happened long ago. He was sitting in an old barcalounger, the springs all busted, and she was laying on the bed, away from him, her little shorts twisted up her thigh enough that he could see a sliver of her orange underwear. The ceiling fan clicked above them.
Then her phone rang and she got all excited.
“Hey,” she said, sitting up.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Yeah,” she said, looking at Levi.
“Sure,” she said.
“My friend is here,” she said, looking away.
“No,” she said. She laughed.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Okay,” she said.
She laughed. “Yeah,” she said. “Cool. See you then.”
“You want to go swimming?” she said.
It look Levi a second to realize she was talking to him.
“Hell yeah,” he said. “I mean, sure.”
“My friend is coming to get us,” she said, jumping off the bed, opening a dresser drawer. “We’re going up to the flumes.”
“Oh,” said Levi. “He’s got a car?”
“Oh yeah,” she said, smiling over her shoulder.
“Cool,” he said, picking at a nugget of foam breaking free from the chair.
“You going to swim in that?” she asked. She was holding a two piece bikini, all strings and little else.
He looked at himself. Baggy white shirt with, he saw now, a mustard stain on the chest, scuffed and torn jeans, sneakers. “I guess,” he said. Then: “I don’t want to go home.”
She made this little frown at him, like you might at a sick kitten. “I bet my dad has something you can borrow.”
But her dad was a big fat guy and his only swim trunks were blue and orange with a surfing gorilla hanging ten in what was, approximately, the crotch. Laid out on the bed they were the size of an opened pizza box.
“Really?” he said.
“You don’t have to go,” she said with a little shrug.
He put on the shorts and wrapped a bungee cord around his waist. The shorts swished about like a skirt when he walked.
“You look great,” she said, smiling.
“Cool,” he said, brushing a lock of hair away from his forehead.
Her friend arrived in his 4Runner. It was all mud splattered, lifted, with big rock-crawling tires. His name was Ian and he wasn’t alone: he’d brought his friend Lonnie and some girl named Gia. They were smoking a joint and listening to Alice in Chains.
“Holy shit, look at that kid! Who is that?” Lonnie asked, laughing and pointing.
“This is my friend Levi,” said Vanessa.
For some reason they all laughed really hard at that.
“What the hell are you wearing, kid?” Ian asked, shaking his head, the joint lolling on his lip.
Levi looked down, as if he didn’t know. “Swimming trunks,” he said.
They all laughed.
“Well, come on then,” said Ian. They had a cooler of beer and they gave one to Levi, and they passed him the joint, but otherwise they didn’t talk to him. He sat in the back with the cooler and a tackle box. Vanessa rode shotgun.
Ian had long hair, like Levis’, only brown, and he wore a Yankees cap backwards over it. He was taller than Levi, and had a little 5 o’clock shadow, and Levi thought that maybe he’d been on the wrestling team once, a year or two ago. He drove fast, even around turns, and he rode real close behind anyone in front of him until they pulled over. When he finished his beers he smashed them on the dashboard and threw them out the window, into the woods. Then he’d call for another, and Levi would have to dig one out of the melting ice and pass it up.
When they got to the flumes, Ian parked his truck off the road behind some trees. They shotgunned beers and tried to teach Levi how, but he kept choking and spitting up suds. Vanessa did it no problem, and afterwards she burped this big old burp and everyone cheered.
The flumes were a series of channels and trenches and raised, metallic sluices that carried water from up the mountain to various tributaries and, eventually, down to the reservoir. They used to transport logs, back when there were logging companies in this area. The loggers would chop down trees and let them float down the flumes, off the mountain, until they could be caught up and shipped out to wherever they were supposed to go. Now they diverted snowmelt to where it was needed, and when they were full you could swim and float in them, and sometimes catch little fish.
Vanessa took off her shorts and shirt and was wearing that bikini: cream colored, all straps and bows, just barely covering her nipples, her crotch; it rode a little bit in the back. She was all shown off, her pale, goose pimpled flesh. Ian took off his shirt and he was all tanned skin and lean muscles. Lonnie had a little pot belly and he patted it like a drum and went running off towards the nearest body of water. Gia was wearing cutoffs and a bra. She had a belly ring. She looked at Vanessa with a kind of amusement.
Levi straggled behind. They were all splashing around in one of the trenches. The water was slow and lazy and glimmered green-gold in the afternoon sun. Levi slowly lowered himself into the water. He submerged and listened to the heavy whooshing sound as the water pushed around him. He let himself float a little. When he bobbed back up he was a dozen or so yards away from the others. He thought about floating away, stealing Ian’s truck. Ian had left the keys in the glove box. He could tell Greg all about these assholes that he stranded up at the flumes. Greg would like that. Levi laughed, his face half in the water, and little bubbles erupted around his mouth. He dove into the water, kept his eyes open, pushed towards the bottom. A fat old crawdad was lurking in the mud and Levi flashed his hand out and snatched the nasty little bug behind the claws. He swam up and back towards the group, holding the thrashing crawdad just above the surface of the water. He came up quietly behind Vanessa. She was all close to Ian, who was trying to dunk Lonnie, who was splashing Gia. Vanessa was just treading water, her pale legs shimmers of light wafting back and forth.
“Vanessa,” Levi said, in a croaky voice.
She turned, and Levi had the crawdad right in her face. It’s snapping claws, its little waggling eyes. She yelped and splashed at him, flung herself backwards into Ian’s arms. Levi laughed and laughed, and so did everyone else, when they saw.
“Where’d you get that?” asked Ian.
“Caught it, on the bottom,” said Levi.
“Nice job little dude,” he said, holding Vanessa.
“Whatever,” said Levi, letting go of the crawdad. He watched it float back down into the murk.
They crawled out and hiked around a bit. Levi found a muddy pool and caught another crawdad, a big one. “Check this one out!” he said, but they were all hiking up the metal flume. He dropped the crawdad and followed.
The metal flume arced along the side of the mountain like a railroad. In its center was a catwalk just wide enough to walk in single file. It was held up by a scaffolding of metal pipes. Beneath the catwalk, the water flowed all green and mossy through the flume. You could hike up the mountain along the catwalk and then float down in the water with just enough space between the water and the metal to hold your face up. Levi jogged to catch up. Ian and Lonnie were racing each other, and were far ahead. Gia was loafing behind them. And then there was Vanessa. Levi came up behind her.
“Having fun?” he asked.
She looked over her shoulder at him. “I guess,” she said.
“I’m having a blast,” he said. “Thanks for inviting me.”
“Sure,” she said.
“Did you bring sunblock?” he asked. He reached out and touched her shoulder, all pink and hot.
She threw her arm back, pulled away from him. “Don’t touch me,” she said.
“Hey,” he said.
“Just don’t touch me, okay?”
“Sorry,” he said.
“Whatever,” he said.
They kept walking. The sun beat down on them. Vanessa’s skin grew more and more pink but Levi didn’t do or say anything. The valley yawned open beneath them, the tops of tall pines just little dots of green far below. Eventually they reached a landing and could leave the catwalk and step off onto the side of the mountain into the shade. Logging trails wound up into the trees.
“Should have brought some beers,” said Lonnie, out of breath.
“What do you guys think? Is this high enough?” said Ian.
“Let’s keep going,” said Levi. “Let’s go all the way to the top.”
Gia stared at him.
“I dunno,” said Ian. “Maybe its time to float on down. Have some beers, y’know?”
Levi shrugged. He looked around. Vanessa was staring at Ian. Her skin was all lobster-pink and mottled. She looked scrawny next to Gia. She looked like a kid. Levi undid the bungee cord at his waist and let his swimming trunks fall, so he was just in his boxers. Everyone laughed. He picked up the trunks and whipped them out over the flume, off the mountain.
“Hey!” said Vanessa. “What the fuck?”
She stepped passed him and as she did he grabbed the knot on her bikini top and pulled, and the whole thing came undone and swung free between his fingers. Her little pale boobs hung out against her sunburnt skin. She screamed and covered herself. Everyone else was laughing, except Levi. She went running off into the woods. Gia was laughing hardest of all. Lonnie went to give Levi a high-five but when Levi didn’t lift his hand, Lonnie just clapped him on the shoulder and laughed like a baboon. Levi dropped the bikini top into the dirt. Ian went running after Vanessa, but he smiled over his shoulder at Levi. They were all laughing and Vanessa was crying as she ran off. Levi just stood there in his boxers. Everything smelled like dirt. The hot sun had baked everything into dirt. Levi walked away, to the flume, and lowered himself into the water. His skin prickled as the heat melted away. He floated down. The sun flickered between the metal. He floated down the mountain and watched the sun pass above and away. The water whooshed all around him. He floated all alone and no one else mattered. He floated down and down, he floated away and he floated towards, he just floated, lazy and slow, he just floated off to what or wherever.