Patrick says he's glad that Cole got a job and asks him about his hours. Cole says he doesn't know yet, and Patrick says that when he finds out, he'll make sure Cole can use the car when he needs it. Cole says it's close and he can walk. Patrick asks where he's working, and Cole answers that he's working at the HARDWARE STORE that doesn't seem to have another name. Patrick grimaces. "It's a shame, what happened to the old man that runs the place... do him good, you hear? I don't want you slacking off."
"Okay." Cole realizes Patrick is being civil to him and smiles at his feet. Patrick tells him to stop fucking smiling, so he stops. "Okay."
Patrick is very drunk because it's Sunday, the only day he does not work. He works until very late Friday and Saturday, which is why Cole has not told him about the job until now. Cole doesn't start until Monday because Keith said he doesn't start until Monday. Patrick's cheeks are red, and his lips have forgotten they're two pieces of the same puzzle. "Well, I'm glad y'got a job, anyway. I'munna just... watch this, you can go do whatever."
Cole turns and walks upstairs and thinks about Patrick in his reclining chair, watching the trash television Mother turned on before she left to drive Stacy to ballet practice and then dawdle for an hour and half while her daughter butchers pirouettes. When Cole was young, Mother brought him along to dawdle, but she does not bring him along anymore. Usually, she goes shopping and spends Patrick's money instead of her own, lavish excursions that bring back small items she can hide in her locked drawers. Mother doesn't trust men or like them very much, but Patrick trusts Mother, and Cole throws away her makeup when she leaves it on the counter.
In his reclining chair, Patrick is wearing a stained wifebeater and dark blue boxer briefs and socks that are too-tight on his thick calves. He watches reruns of Sixteen and Pregnant because that's what Mother left on, and he doesn't know where the remote is, and he doesn't know where his money is. Today, he's drinking liquor because he drinks beer every other day of the week, and he was civil to Cole long enough that it made Cole smile. It makes him want to smile again, but now he's nervous, so he thinks about going to work on Monday.
He realizes he doesn't know anything about tools, but he lies on his bed and pushes his face into the dark blue sheets and doesn't care that much because if the people coming in are like Patrick, they'll know what they're getting and where it is and how to use it. When Cole was small, Patrick tried to connect with him, and part of connecting was going to Home Depot. Cole stayed very quiet while Patrick grabbed the things he needed. If he was quiet enough, Patrick bought him a root beer, and Cole grips the dark blue sheets.
Maybe he should draw the folds, but he doesn't want to get up. His sketchbook is on the desk beside his newest composition book. This one is red instead of black, and Cole had only written in it once: Keith Erickson, inconclusive.
He's not sure what that means yet, but he smells the dark blue sheets. They smell like detergent, and he rolls onto his back and counts at the same stains. The overhead fan is plastic and covered in dust. The dust is all different colors but collectively appears gray, but it also appears luminescent when it gets caught in the slots of sunlight, floating. He reaches and remembers that when he was very young, he used to call them fairies. Patrick told him that was gay and to shut the fuck up. When he was even younger, Mother told him he was creative, and he should be a writer.
She's spending money, and Cole rises to his feet to pace, taken with a familiar mania. He thinks about his homework, but he doesn't have any. He did it all on Saturday when he couldn't sleep, but he sits down to revise his English paper. His language is plain because Benoist likes plain language. Last year, he had a teacher named Kevin Farrel who liked language that was anything but plain. They learned a lot about poetry, and Cole never liked poetry until he read The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner. He sits at his desk and writes the last line because it's his favorite. He writes it over and over and contemplates writing poetry. He doesn't think he has the experience to write anything so poignant and precise as when I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
For ten minutes he thinks about what it must have been like to write that and knows what it means exactly—to have seen such a thing—but it hurts his head and sickens his stomach. He leans over the desk and thinks about other people not thinking and tries to draw. Keith would be nice to draw, but he can't draw people, and Cole soon returns to bed despite (or in spite of) his wanderlust legs.
He's nauseous, but it's a new kind of nauseous. He thinks about Mother spending money that isn't hers, and Stacy being a talentless wisp with pretty eyes, and Patrick reclining in his chair. Patrick works at the steel mill the pours black smoke onto the horizon; at night, the smoke hides amongst the clouds like cuttlefish in the bright sand. He closes his eyes and tries to nap, but he keeps thinking. He thinks about Randall Jarell and realizes he's never read another poem by him. Cole gets up and sits at his desk and waits for his laptop to power on. It takes two minutes because his laptop is old, but it only takes a minute to find more poems by Randall Jarell.
None of them are The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, and he stops reading to return to bed, still nauseous. It is a sickness that rests in his stomach but also behind his eyelids; he is not welcome to the blackness there, and he rolls onto his stomach wishing his sheets were any other color. Maybe black, and his cheeks are warm with blood. His thighs are warm with blood. Something else is warm with blood.
A minute more, and he's weak; he doesn't know what he thinks about while he palms tension away, but when he finishes and wipes his hand on the pillow he never sleeps on, he thinks of blood smeared in the ball turret Randall Jarell immortalized.
"Hey. Faggot." Keith bursts from his peripheral and takes his shoulder. They are on White Road, but the sky is overcast, wasting away the unnerving brightness. "You even listening?"
Cole shakes his head because he never learned to tell the lies everyone else does. Keith doesn't tell those lies, either. "Sorry."
"Yeah, well, fucking listen. I got you this job, you can at least fucking listen." Keith smokes a cigarette; he smokes the same brand as Patrick, but Patrick smokes menthols. "That book we're reading. You been doing the study guide?"
"Good. Good. I need to see it. I just can't give a fuck about this fucking book, but I need to graduate."
"I know. You told me before."
"So you only listen sometimes?" Keith sucks his cigarette and looks at Cole, who looks back at him until he can't; Keith could win any staring contest with eyes like his. "You're a strange fucking faggot, you know that?"
They turn off White Road, and Cole walks slower so Keith might walk slower but it doesn't work. He jogs a few steps and remembers what he was thinking about when he wasn't listening to Keith. "I think you'd like this poem I was reading."
Keith arches a pale eyebrow. "Yeah, strange fucking faggot. Sure, whatever. Give me the packet and show it to me later. Here." He passes his cigarette to Cole's unsure fingers and snickers when he fumbles with it. "Take a drag, and I'll read the poem or whatever. You don't got asthma or nothing."
Cole stares at the cigarette, and he wonders why he holds it between two fingers. His mother holds it between two fingers and so does Patrick, and he wonders who was the first person to hold a cigarette between two fingers. "I uh. Okay." He brings it to his lips but doesn't inhale.
Keith slaps his head, and it stings. "I ain't a fucking moron."
"I know I'm—" He inhales and knows what it would feel like to set his lung on fire. He almost drops the smoking butt, but Keith snatches it from him while he clutches his chest and coughs. He coughs until there are tears in his eyes and his ribs feel tight and his throat is constricting around razors.
He coughs until Keith looks at him at him and asks, "You all right? Pussy." He pats his back anyway, and they are at the HARDWARE STORE, standing beneath the sign, smelling like tobacco. Cole can't smell anything else.
"Why does anyone smoke?"
"Oh, shut the fuck up. They get better." Keith ushers him to the cool innards of the store. They don't open for another thirty minutes, so Keith perches on the counter when they get to the back. Cole stands and sways. "You can read me that... that fucking poem tomorrow, all right?"
"I have it memorized."
"Fuck you're gay. All right, poem, then give me your study guide I seriously need to finish that fucking thing by tomorrow."
After an indefinite moment taken for composure, his recitation echoes because the ceilings are high and the aisles are widely spaced. He leans against the counter because Keith grabs his shoulder and whispers to stop fucking swaying. Cole finishes the poem looking at his feet and says, "It's about—"
"I'm dumb not fucking retarded." Keith's hand is closer to his neck. "That was okay. Not fucking stupid. I mean, I get it. People are awful, y'know? S'not a terrible thing when they die. It's like cleaning food scraps off a plate. No, I liked it. S'all right, fag."
Cole nods and asks if he wants the study guide. Keith spends the next fifteen minutes copying it verbatim while Cole sweeps and restocks shelves Keith tells him to restock and changes the closed sign to open when the time comes. He circles back to Keith. "Done?"
"Yeah. I put it away for you." He pats the desk and asks, "Would you kill someone? Like, I dunno, some asshole you really fucking hated or even someone you just don't give a shit about. Would you kill them?"
Keith rocks forward and back again; he's passionate but muted, perhaps intentionally, and he's waiting for an answer. Cole says, "I don't know," because he doesn't and he can't read Keith's intentions. His face look like Cole's lung must have, burning.
"Good. Good. Stay by the cash register I can tell you don't know what the fuck's going on around here. Don't bullshit answers to questions. Don't bullshit. I'll teach you how to use the key machine tomorrow, just run the cash register today. It's old school as fuck you'll figure it out."
"Okay." Keith's footfalls echo, and Cole thinks about dark blue sheets.
When they leave, the sun is setting and everything is pale orange, but the heat is dry and numbing, and there's always rattling on the wind, the sound of a million insects and leaves and cars. Keith collects the warm colors like he's been painted into the landscape, and he bumps Cole's shoulder when they're about to part ways. "See you tomorrow. You didn't do as bad as I thought you would."
"You didn't do great, neither, but you're not a total fucking failure." Keith grins. "Yeah, you're not a total fucking failure." He rubs Cole's shoulder before he lights a cigarette. They stand on the corner of White Road. "Cole. They name you after the black shit?"
"No. Actually, I don't know." Cole wonders if the sky paints him so many hues or if it's Keith's paleness. The cherry of his cigarette is the brushstroke of an artist who can shape perfect figures but forgets to remove the surreality of his vision, wavering. "I don't think I'm named after anything. My mom just liked the name."
"I wasn't asking. It was a fucking joke."
"S'fine." Keith looks around at the two-story houses and their empty windows and grabs Cole's wrist. "Hey. Think about that question, all right? What I asked you earlier. I'll see you, faggot." He leans close to his face and hisses, "And don't write my name in shit, you fucking stalker."
Cole can't tell if Keith's offended or amused, but he walks away, and Cole knows Keith knows what's in the red composition book. He opened the red composition book, he read the single inconclusive line, and Cole thinks of dark blue boxer briefs.