Teenager (an excerpt)

Bud Smith

There were pay showers at a campground in Parkersburg. They didn’t have many quarters, so they washed together, hurriedly. Spiders and flies looked down from webs. They stopped and played acrade games. Ms. Pac-Man and Tetris inside a grocery store in Lexington. A county fair with a twinkling Ferris wheel caught their eye off the interstate near Sugar Tree. They pulled off and had one of their nicest nights. Bright blue cotton candy, demolition bumper cars, sharp darts popping clow-nose balloons. He won her a strange bobble-headed goldfish scooped from a blinking holding tank. He felt sorry for the fish. Some could be epileptic. The barker placed the fish in a clear bag. Whoosh of air, overhand knot to finish. Teal gave the fish to a blond-haired little girl, who shrieked with delight. Kody bought Teal a corn dog. While they ate, a woozy country-and-western band began to tune up on the far side of the fairgrounds. “I’ve never had one of these.” “One what? A corn dog?” She nodded and took a bite. “Then you’ve never lived.” “They don’t have them back home. Where have you been that corn dogs are so abundant?” The band dove in. Walking bass line. Kick and snare. You had to strain to hear the steel guitar under any of it. “Teal, I’m gonna tell you something.” He spoke dramatically. “Corn dogs are the backbone of this great country annnnnd I’ve been everywhere.” He followed the rhythm and sang now, “I’ve been everywhere, man–” The real singer was at the microphone now and interrupted Kody. “This here number and all the songs after are all dedicated to personal freedom.” The singer simultaneously began to strum the guitar and sing about the Second Amendment in upmost twangy beautitde. Teal took another bite. Kody said, “Before me and Dale had our falling out, he took me driving around for three weeks in his big rig. He must have been sober then. A brief window of sobriety.” “Dale’s your dad?” “No.” Kody shot her an irritated glare. “They guy who pulled me out of the tree. I only told you this about ten times. Rhonda’s boyfriend.” “You did tell me this, sorry.” She was standing on her tippy-toes trying to see the band, they sounded good. She looked back at him and saw he was being a baby. Had a hurt pout on his face. “Where did you go, Kody?” He waved her off and stood there, not saying. “Where did you gooooooo?” “You name it.” “It’s a shame you’ve been everywhere, it would have been pretty special to see something for the first time with you.” “This is my first time at the county fair.” “Nooooo,” she said in mock astonishment. It was getting busier. The crowd filled in all around them. Kody zoned out and watched a roller coaster whip around on its rails. People were pretending to be scared. They could die at any moment. Sure they could. When he looked to his side, the crowd was swarming and he’d somehow lost Teal. Kody pushed through the sweaty plaid people. The tall dads in plaid and their plaid wives. Adolescents, dump in plaid, with fashion work boots and plaid laces. The plaid elderly with plaid canes and funnel cake. Young plaidsters, plaid pigtails and plaid tickets for plaid rides, all saying to him, “Watch it. . . .Watch it,” as he muscled through, unplaid. A hand grabbed his shoulder. He swung around to throw a punch. “There you are,” Teal said. “I thought you were playing with me. Can we go see this band?” He took her hand and they went closer. “Will you dance with me?” she asked. He swung her hand and they skipped through the crowd. A labyrinth of dazed humans, big belt buckled and more plaid shirts. The smell of pony shit and kettle corn. It was his first slow dance. She had to show him how. She’d gone to a few dances at her high school, but mostly sat on the sidelines. She’d learned a lot, just by watching. He danced in rigor mortis. She rested her head on his shoulder until he loosened up. They were like little leaves shaking, middle of all those chatty people, gripping on to each other’s shoulder blades like mountain climbers without a safety rope. Swaying back and forth while the band played sad songs they didn’t know. The songs sounded sweet under the fair lights and he was grateful to touch her this way again and be touched back in this way again. She was overjoyed to be touched this way again and to touch back in that way again. It was as simple as that. His hands ran down her back, her arms ringed his neck. A kiss as the song broke into a galloping hoedown and the line dancers knocked them out from their reverie, expelled them stumbling toward the Tilt-A-Whirl. They stayed at the fairgrounds after everyone else went away. Kody smashed the snack-shop window with Neil’s boot. It was nice in there, cozy. The snacks were great. Best snacks he’d ever had. He put the blankets on the floor and they fooled around for a while but she wouldn’t go all the way. Kody felt she was right to have him on probation. But. “Not yet.” “Maybe we don’t have much time.” “Not tonight.” He lay still beside her. He looked her in the eyes. “This guy I went to school with died like this. It was terrible. From fatal blue balls.” “That’s not true. But I’m gonna take care of you.” “I’d like that.” “I want to. So shut up.” She kissed him again and reached into his pants. It took him what seemed thirty seconds to groan and settle down. “You just saved my life.” “I don’t need mine saved right yet.” They were quiet for a while and he wondered if Teal was asleep. He thought for a long time of asking her if she was awake and then finally did, in the lowest whisper. “Just laying here thinking,” she said. “I’ll hypnotize you. I know how.” Kody sat up and pulled a lollipop out of the display. He began to recite mumbo-jumbo wizard words from a world beyond, guaranteed to make her sleepy. He swung the lollipop over her face in clockwise spiral. “Is it working?” he said after a while. “Uh-huh,” she said drowsily. Something crunched in the cabinet. Teal opened one eye. Some mouse was also in love with the snacks. All the rest of the night she lay beside him perfectly still, and he was the same way. Both excited for different reasons. In the dead of the night she whispered, “Thanks for making me feel good tonight.” He answered back immediately. “Thank you for making me feel good too.”

Just after dawn he heard a dog barking. He looked out the window and saw a pretty girl throw a Frisbee for a decrepit gold retriever, who kept missing the catch and then limping along after it. She gave the dog a big stick instead and it stood there with it in its mouth, immobile. Kody went out and the girl saw him standing there and said, “Hey.” He asked if she wanted any snacks or if the dog would. The girl had on short shorts and a tight shirt with strawberry on it. He said the snacks were free. She went away with the old dog. Teal was eating Famous Amos cookies when he came back in. “Saw you strike out. Impressive.” She’d been watching from the window. “Just being friendly to our neighbors. Don’t be jealous.” “You didn’t see me sitting on the lap of the guy who ran the ring toss.” He told her he was a one-woman man and she was it for him. Teal said that was good because he was it for her. It and It. Both of them were It. They loaded the car and headed off again. Kody imagined the police were involved in some capacity now, they had to be. A nest of hornets roused by a firecracker. Teal wondered what the criteria would be for her to be allowed to visit him in jail. Was it good how it was? Conjugal visits. That’s what she was trying to figure out. You couldn’t just be a girlfriend. They could figure all of it out later. Variables unknown and unnumbered. It and It, she thought. Kody pictured the head detective just now getting a file drunk with four ex-wives. The detective took one look at the file and said, “These kids have gone to Rome. Not my problem. Alert Interpol. Now thank you very much, I’m back to sleep to dream of strippers sitting on my face.” So justice closed its eyes and took its little nap.

From TEENAGER: A Novel by Bud Smith. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Bud Smith.

Bud Smith works heavy construction in New Jersey. His story “Violets” appeared in The Paris Review.