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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Probably It’s Nothing Fancy
We cannot be in love, he tells me, because we were friends first and we have been friends for quite a long time. Since high school, he says, and I say, Eighth grade. He wore a Flogging Molly shirt to school every day and I always thought that was so stupid, because that band is awful except for their one song—that song where everyone’s drunk at the end?—and I guess that song is okay.
So no, we are not in love, but still I drive eight hours south through farmland and blistering asphalt to sit on his porch and drink his beer. He puts shrimp in a Ziploc bag with Italian dressing and when we’re good and drunk, we throw them on the grill. We sneak into the neighbor’s yard to steal sticks and then sit around his fire pit, tossing empty tin cans into the center, and we poke them when they smoke. We’re pretty sure this lets off pollution—gases green and shimmering as they rise from the molten core—but it’s a hot summer night and we, frankly, do not care.
“You’re good company because you’re smart,” he says, but that has nothing to do with it, since he’s smart, too, and all his friends have smart jobs. One is an engineer and the other teaches biology; she owns a book on edible weeds and once I caught her chewing clover.
“Medicinal qualities,” she told me, but I rolled my eyes and I thought, Yuppie.
“Not science-smart,” he clarifies, but still we both know that’s just not it. Me, I like him because he takes me to neat places, like the quarry where we sit in the beds of pickup trucks playing Yahtzee and sipping lemonade. Jean made it fresh for Joe and we both like Joe and especially Jean, and we find their love kind of remarkable and we both say out loud, “Man, they are good,” because they are good people and their love yields this sweet lemonade. He rolls five fives and makes a sort of squealing sound and then we both decide to swim. We race to the water’s edge and jump down in one big splash, our feet hitting the surface at the exact same time. I like to kick around and think about what could be underneath us, all those dark feet below. I like to believe there are cranes down there, and cement trucks, and maybe whole villages full of people, but probably it’s just twigs and rocks, and probably, it’s nothing fancy.
Other places we go include the chicken hut and spitfire barbecue pit, where we sit at picnic tables and order whole or halves of animals. He has a friend who’s vegan and when the baby-back ribs arrive she makes a face, picking at her sweet potato fries, saying, “I don’t know how you support that,” and we feel bad but only kind of, and never for very long. The barbecue sauce is homemade and good and he doesn’t make fun of me when I get it on my lip.
“You know what’s next,” he says then, and I do: the drive-through liquor store, which we like just because it exists. He lets me drive his Chevy and I roll down the window and ask for more lemonade, but spiked this time!, because the sky is a wound-like orange and there’s fireflies in the space between us. Then we sit around the fire pit and when the West Virginia song comes on—about all those country roads and how they take us home—I lean into him and sigh.
Our home is country, too, but it is very far away.
He passes a bottle of something he calls the Southern Juice around the fire, saying, “You are in the south now, and it’s time to drink the Southern Juice.”
We both know the juice is only bourbon but I swig it anyway and lick my lips, say, “Gin and juice,” and he laughs and say, “Trooful, o’ so trooful,” which is something he’s been saying since the eighth grade although he outgrew it long ago. We take more swigs and I can rest easy then, because he’s not the type to get me drinking just to get me drinking, so I can swig the Southern Juice and be comfortable about it, out there in my basketball jersey, sitting around his fire pit, his porch, not worrying.
In the morning, we wake to chickens and I always say it’s so damn country. We sneak into the hen house and he holds up the fattest one.
“Beatrice,” he says, and he holds her at an angle so her claws are sharp against him, not me.
I hold her tight and touch her fluff and say, “Chickens would be nice to sleep against if only they could be domesticated.”
We eat fresh eggs for breakfast and then he makes some pancakes.
We are not in love but still we go for a long drive anyway, because this is the south, he says astutely, and I really oughta see it. We buy homemade jerky from a man in overalls and he lets me control the radio, which is all I ever want to do. I put on the types of songs you hear on Apple commercials and he bounces his head and pretends to like them.
“This is what they’d play if this were a movie!” I say to justify, and he laughs and say I am a girl, and funny, and definitely in that order.
“Like Amy Poehler,” he says. “Except in jeans instead of blazers, but otherwise, you’re the same.”
Night comes around and we grill all the food he has in his kitchen: bread and broccoli and little baby mushrooms. We open hot dog buns and set them soft side-down over the pile of coals. We sit by the fire and watch them flame, and when the night is good and through, his kittens join us in the bed. We smell like ash and wood smoke, but still we hold their bodies tight to give their fur the scent of us. We cuddle them to our cheekbones, pretend it’s their warmth we want.
But we are not in love. We could never be in love.
“Seems it’d be wrong to even try,” he says, “when we’ve been friends for so damn long.”
“Definitely,” I say, “I don’t know how that’d even work.”
So no, we are not in love; we are just two people in the south, and come morning, I‘ll drive north. The sun will come up, and the chickens will cluck, and he will package fresh eggs in empty six-packs and cushion them neatly in my passenger seat.
“Because,” he’ll say, “we both know fresh is best.”
But now, it is night, and maybe this is just the place where people go to let things go.
Hold the kittens to chest, I think. Tell yourself it’s them you feel.
Amy Butcher is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and Gettysburg College. She was the 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in nonfiction writing at Colgate University and this past winter she was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and Salon, among others.
Copyright © 2013 by Amy Butcher.