“Is it gonna make me jumpy?”
“No,” said Socrates. “The marijuana counteracts the effects. It’s a relaxant, a narcotic. Calma el alma. Like morphine or something.”
“So what’s the point?”
But Socrates remained silent as he produced the blunt from his side pocket. This morning, before we picked up the girls, he’d sprinkled cocaine across the unrolled blunt’s length, carefully, like an experienced chef who can determine flavor potency by sight. I’d once seen Socrates fashion a bong out of a Granny Smith apple, culinary skills bested only by curious but effective paraphernalia creations. He worked with me at Arby’s making roast beef sandwiches.
Emily said, “I think this is gonna make me wig out.”
“If you go into something thinking that way,” said Jessica, “of course it will. Change your state of mind. Relax.”
Our co-workers Emily and Jessica doubled as our dates. We stood, the four of us, in a circle deep in the wooded area of Indiana Dunes State Park, a recreation area near Lake Michigan’s southernmost cut. Indiana sawgrass tickled our bare feet, and some purple wildflowers I couldn’t name drooped over on the rise, happy-like, sun-drunk. Moby Dick clouds swam through the sky and with their underbellies scraped birch and maple, thick shagbark and black gum. Trees that brought forth fruit in their season. Trees that sheltered our sins. People often shrank from the beach and filtered into the forest with wrongful intentions, according to Socrates. Sex. Drugs. Somewhere, deep in the silt, a body was buried. Socrates knew about things like that. Or at least he claimed to.
Socrates’ dad, a second-generation immigrant, drove roach coaches all across the south side, selling prepackaged pizza slices, burritos, and gyros outside railyards and factories. Socrates loved telling people his dad worked in Chicago—we lived nearby in Griffith, Indiana, a place no one was proud to be from. Socrates shaved his head to the skin and managed an immaculate goatee, facial hair so pristine it appeared painted on, black as used oil, trimmed and full.
“What’s this called?” asked Emily. Earlier, before we picked up the girls in Socrates’ Toyota, I claimed Emily as my date and he hadn’t put up much of a fight, leading me to believe I’d chosen poorly. “When you lace a blunt?”
“Cocoa puffs,” I said.
Socrates waved a dismissive hand. “Nuh uh. I call it a Christmas tree.” He unwrapped the tip and displayed a powder trail for us. “See all that snow?” He laughed.
“Whatever,” said Jessica, a brunette with eyes the color of Lake Michigan. I felt betrayed by Socrates, as though he’d somehow incepted me into pursuing the less attractive Emily. They were Polish girls who’d recently graduated high school together and now sought a little bit of danger before attending college in the fall. Socrates and I, both twenty years old, stood on that wonderful precipice between college-aged burnout and complete adult wastoid. Meaning: we were mitigated risks.
Emily said, “Isn’t this kind of like smoking crack? I mean, that’s what crack is. Cocaine.”
“It’s barely even a crack approximation,” said Socrates, which was meant to console Emily but had the opposite effect. “Crack is the strongest form of cocaine—they burn all the impurities out. This isn’t even crack lite. It’s gone from your system in a day and if you don’t snort it you won’t crave it. Yeah?”
“I guess,” said Emily, leaning against a maple tree. She wore a blue bikini with white polka dots. I quickly assessed her via peripheral vision. Although she failed to fill out her swimsuit the same way as Jessica, she was taller and had longer legs, reinforcing my decision-making skills.
Socrates fired up the blunt with a cheap but effective Bic lighter. The mixture crackled more like Rice Krispies than Cocoa Puffs, but I still preferred my designation. Christmas tree, the nickname Socrates decided on, made me think of church and the Bible. Old memories. The blunt’s tip turned bright orange as Socrates took a deep drag, and the odor, a distinct flavor, could best be described as burning leaves combined with a more acrid version of a chewed up aspirin tablet. The latter could be caused by baby laxative, which most cocaine is cut up with. Why baby laxative? Because it’s cheap.
Socrates passed the blunt to his left, to Jessica, who toked professionally, coughed, and handed it over to Emily. I watched carefully. Emily took careful sips, like someone on TV might taste a suspicious vial before spitting and saying, yeah, that’s poison. In fact, she did spit, or more of a cough actually, a lightbulb-sized puff shining dull gray under the hot Indiana sun.
When it was my turn I dragged a nice even hit, rotating the blunt so it would burn evenly, letting the smoke roll down to the bottom of my lungs before sifting it out my nostrils.
“Good stuff,” said Socrates. Not a question; he knew.
“Yep,” I said.
It turned out that the four of us were all youngest siblings of large families. Emily and Jessica, both Polish and Catholic, had six brothers and sisters between them. Socrates came late, an accident baby after his parents had already birthed two boys and two girls. For myself, the third of four. We shared familial trial and tribulation stories from our past as the blunt circled.
“My oldest sister is your typical good Catholic girl,” explained Jessica. “She got in trouble for sassing or something, I don’t remember, when our dad was busy shingling the roof, so he said, ‘Remind me to spank you later.’ He was the disciplinarian, you know. He spanked us with his leather belt. Anyway, hours later my dad climbs off the roof, hot, sweaty, tired–probably a Saturday project before mass–and he’s sitting in the living room with a glass of ice water. Completely forgot about the spanking. But my sister, goody-two-shoes, fearful and trembling, all meek and everything, approaches my dad and reminds him.”
She paused to inhale the blunt. “Like, you forgot to punish me, Dad. And she was terrified, hated getting in trouble, but she thought it’d be worse to not say anything.”
“A lie of omission,” said Socrates, stroking his goatee.
“Exactly. But my dad, and probably because he was all tired, tells her forget about it. And she’s like, forget? Like I never did anything? She never got paddled, either. He said, ‘You get grace this time.'”
“Grace?” I said.
“It’s just forgiveness,” said Emily, again hitting the blunt cautiously, prodding it like a bird beaks into a crack in the wall. “That’s all it means.”
“No,” said Socrates. “Profound forgiveness. The nonsensical variety.”
I laughed and accepted the blunt from Emily. “None of it makes sense to me.”
“My older brother socked me in the gut one time,” said Socrates. “Outside the library. We were walking inside the glass double doors, a stack of readers in my arms, and he turned around and punched me. For no reason. I doubled over, somehow keeping hold of my books. Even today it bothers me, sticks in my head. I want to sock him back.”
“You probably had it coming,” I said. “Deserved it.”
“I just said I didn’t. He did crap like that all the time. And if I deserved it, do you think it would still bother me?”
“But come on, you were a little kid. Memory forgets, sentimentalizes.” While I spoke, I noticed Emily was crying. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head.
“She has emotional incontinence,” said Jessica, trying to make a joke.
“I just realized I don’t have a story,” said Emily, wiping her face. “My family was perfect.”
“Geez,” I said, shooing away some no-see-ums that tickled my ear. “That’s no reason to get weepy.” Occasionally the marijuana/coke combination brought about strange, unpredictable behavior in first-time users. Personally I felt like a brick building, happy to remain stagnant and watch the birds swoop in and the sawgrass wave and the clouds spout water trails, but Emily teetered on total collapse.
“I’ll be okay,” she assured us. “I want this.”
Which meant what exactly? Socrates shrugged and took the blunt from me. It circled once more before blazing out; the cocaine seemed to amplify burn time, counteracting the sticky cigar wrapper Socrates had so delicately mummified it in. I wanted to share the story of my brother stealing beer from the liquor store only to discover, once safe at home, it was non-alcoholic O’Doul’s—I thought it might cheer Emily up—but the storytelling occasion had passed. And Emily now appeared unrattled. She even took a powerful drag for her last turn, handing me little more than a brown, ashy nub. I hit it by making the “okay” sign with my hand, a thumb and pointer finger pressed together, a sort of shadow rabbit, and so did Socrates, who then Spanish-swore and stomped out the roach’s pitiful remains on the ground.
We slipped through the woods, the trees close together now like pipe organ tubes in some church choir loft, and finally emerged unto the beach. It spread out before us flat and tan, and standing on the dune, elevated a few stories above everyone else, I wished to see all the way to Chicago. But Lake Michigan’s blue caught every sun sparkle, blinding me.
“Let’s slide down together,” said Emily.
Socrates held Jessica’s hand as they descended toward the beach. I took Emily’s hand and followed them, displacing sand, skidding more than stepping, and by the time we reached the bottom we all four laughed, exhilarated, enlivened, enraptured, completely zonked.
People around us, oblivious to our mental states, performed various beach activities: frisbees sailed and arced, volleyballs made that deep plunking sound when dug out from a spike, a football wobbled from water to sand. And just as I began to lament the underrepresentation of European sports, a soccer ball bounced toward us. Socrates dribbled it sloppily and kicked it back.
Jessica said, “Let’s get in the water already.”
“It’s probably cold,” I said.
“Hang on just a minute,” said Socrates. “We have to find our stuff.”
Somehow we located our belongings, beach towels spread out in the sand. While the girls self-applied suntan lotion, Socrates placed the rest of our eight-ball in his denim jacket. I’d told him—begged him, really—to leave the drugs at home, to only bring along the absolute necessary amount, to avoid a possible criminal charge and everything, but he objected with “You never know,” which I supposed could be interpreted a variety of ways with none of them being particularly honorable. He acted like he wanted to get caught, so much that I questioned his illicit substance management skills. “You white boys,” he’d said, clicking his tongue and shaking his head. I had cowered away, ashamed.
“What are you doing?” asked Jessica.
“Checking my phone,” replied Socrates. He winked at me.
We splashed into the water and discovered a miracle: warmth. Not the water itself, but the floating sensation that came with it. We drifted for a while, aimlessly, then played chicken, Socrates and I placing our dates on our shoulders and wrestling each other for dominance. The drugs delivered: I felt simultaneously engaged and unconcerned. We didn’t keep score. It was like playing sports in preschool or kindergarten, the purity of the game captured and preserved for a few brief years. I understood, in a way, why people smoked crack. Everyone was trying to burn their life down to its purest form. I shared my nirvana with the group.
“Stoner philosophy,” said Socrates.
“Why are you being so dismissive? It could be true.”
“Everything could be true,” admitted Emily.
“Ugh,” said Socrates, grabbing Jessica in a backward hug. “Your theories are contagious. Stay away from us!”
It was insulting, but I laughed anyway. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t help it.
We paired off into dating groups after that, Emily and I chest-deep, Jessica and Socrates further out, deeper, floating heads back at the barrier ropes. The county roped off the deep water and had lifeguards, so we remained safe from drowning. A few people snorkeled around us even though all you could see was murky, boring, lifeless carpet under the water. Gulls flapped and shrieked as they hunted gull food, hungry and grumpy in their search.
“Look at that girl,” said Emily. “On the beach. She’s got more muscles than you do.”
I spotted the subject, an athletic chick in a sports bra and bikini bottom, playing football on the beach. Her tan, toned arms shimmered under the sunlight. She tossed a dead duck to a wealth of male followers.
“But she throws like a girl.”
Emily laughed, so I kissed her.
“Whoa,” she said, brushing me off. “I like you, but I don’t know if I like you yet.”
I’d heard that distinction before. “Oh well.”
“Hey, don’t think I’m not interested. I just like to take my time with relationships.”
“Same here,” I lied. “You deserve to be happy.”
“You really think so?”
“Sure. Why not?” She smelled sweet, but fake sweet, like pseudo-fruit, the artificial things they mix into girls’ body spray. Melon passion fruit or rad red raspberry.
“Anyway, I’ll be away at college soon. I’m going pre-med.”
“Ambitious,” I said, even though I knew ‘pre-med’ was more of a declaration than anything else. Still, she had more ambition than me. “You’ll make good money.”
“But that’s not why. I want to be like that lifeguard, but, you know, really save people.”
“Save them from what?”
“I just think,” I said, “that you can save someone, but at the same time you can’t.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
It angered me that she only appreciated her own distinctions. It was perfectly clear to me; why couldn’t she see? But I faked a smile anyway.
“Sorry,” I said, making a shadow rabbit with my right hand.
“The drugs,” she said, and laughed sweetly.
“If you’re serious about college, you’d better stop hanging out with guys like me.”
She said, “Don’t tempt me.”
With the sun streaking down to one corner of Lake Michigan, we paddled to shore and dried off. About half the people, beach-dwellers, sojourners every last one, had exited due to the decreasing temperature and darkening corners. Gulls flapped away. The tide consumed leftover sandcastles. Everything was falling apart, spiraling into a necessary chaos.
I noticed the musclebound hunkess, the girl Emily had pointed out earlier, sitting nearby, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and squinting in the fading light to read a health magazine. I pitied her; she could never escape. But she had her identity, anyway, and surely that was worth something.
“How is this even possible? I’m still blazing,” said Jessica.
“It’s a five-hour high,” promised Socrates.
Our dates wriggled into their jeans shorts, tattered things with fraying white cords that whispered in the wind. Neither girl had brought a t-shirt. It just wasn’t t-shirt season, or at least it hadn’t been when we’d left. Socrates had carried his jacket along since he occasionally wore it while shirtless, thinking himself sexy—a real Latin lover.
“I think I got burnt,” Emily said sorrowfully.
“Told you,” said Jessica. “Use something stronger than SPF 8.”
Emily frowned. “I wanna glow.”
“Not a chance. You’re peeling already.”
“Now I’m freezing, too.”
“Yep. That means you really got burnt.”
Emily looked at Socrates. “Let me wear your jacket.”
“Um,” said Socrates. He shot me a look, not because my girl had asked to wear his article of clothing (traditionally a dating ritual, as I understood it), but because of course the jacket contained several grams of cocaine inside the pocket of said article. But as I hadn’t brought any warmer clothes, her request seemed legitimate, platonic. Socrates rubbed his whiskered chin, nodded slowly, and handed Emily his jacket. She threaded her slim arms through its sleeves.
“Guess I’ll just wear my towel,” said Jessica. She draped it over her shoulders like a cape. “It’s all sandy…”
We made our way across the trail, each step formed by a rotting, tar-spotted railroad tie. The railroad ties made me think of black keys on an antique piano. In fact, I thought I heard a song in the shrubby background, a canticle, probably from Psalms, the most mournful book in Bible. Mournful, but also the most praising and glorious. A real puzzler. As nature’s symphony conducted its song, Socrates threw me his keys behind-the-back style.
“That stuff stays in my head forever. You’re way more lucid than I am,” he said. “Nos llevan al cielo.”
I laughed, the keys jangling in my hand. “Don’t say that unless you mean it.”
Jessica and Emily piled in the back, giggling about something. Girls were always giggling about something; it was part of their mystery. I liked it.
“Back to el casa,” said Socrates. “We got drinks, smokes. What more do we need?”
“Nothing,” I answered, turning the engine over.
Jessica said, “Don’t think you can take advantage of us just because we’re stoned.”
“Hey now,” said Socrates, “you’re talking to two gentlemen. We’re not that type.”
His girl smiled. “Good.”
“Do you have vodka?” asked Emily. She contorted her arms behind her head and fashioned a ponytail. “I could use something to level me out.”
“We have it all,” I said.
“How about some air back here?” said Emily.
“Thought you were cold,” said Jessica. “Make up your mind.”
“It’s all stuffy in this car.”
“Wait till we get moving,” replied Socrates.
“We can’t wait. We’re eighteen,” said Jessica, laughing.
I pulled out of the parking lot, creeping along in the birch and maple shadows. The A/C sucked but I turned it on anyway, pumping semi-cool air back to the girls. Instead of 94, I took Dunes Highway out, relishing the sunsetting beach, the female accompaniment, dried sweat on my lips, slowly angling our lives and our futures toward Griffith. A few stars poked through the sky like silver fish needling a dark, watery surface. The lakeside drive felt haunted, inhabited by one, maybe two vehicles.
Salt shaker noises emitted from the radio as I searched for a decent station. The Toyota, nearly as old as I was, came with a factory radio that had knobs instead of buttons for the dial. Finally I landed on a Top 40 station, which pleased the back seat.
“I’ve got orientation next week,” said Jessica.
“Did it already,” said Emily, head-bopping. “My mom took me. It’s a three-hour drive–not far enough away from Griffith, if you ask me. The guides try to hit on you hardcore, even hit on the moms. Pathetic.”
“The school spirit guys.”
“Ugh. Look at my nails–they’re all janky.”
“File those tiger claws, lady.”
I set the cruise control and said “Light me up” to Socrates. He poked two cigarettes into his mouth. Socrates, he looked like a cigarette commercial the way he so professionally sparked his cheap lighter, fired off both smokes, and handed me one. Probably I could spend all my life trying to be like him only to discover he’d been envious of me, my white privilege, et cetera, his whole life.
But the first puff gave me punk eye, a stinging sensation that made me blink and tear up, causing me to skid off the road momentarily. I jerked the wheel to aim us forward again.
“Whoa,” said Emily.
Jessica said, “You’re good to drive, right?”
“Relax. There was a bunny in the road.”
“Uh oh,” said Socrates, eyeing his side mirror.
Blue and red lights flashed behind me. A Porter County trooper saddled up behind us, practically ramming our bumper. Emily and Jessica swiveled around and gawked in disbelief. Socrates sat lower in his seat and swore in English, then Spanish. Gravel crackled under the Toyota as I eased us onto the shoulder.
“What are we supposed to do?” said Jessica.
“They can tell if you’re high,” said Emily. “What if my parents find out?”
Socrates lowered his voice. “She’s got that paranoia,” he said, meaning Emily. “Ill-timed.”
The cop sat behind us, calling in our plates, observing us. The girls whispered as though he could hear them. I couldn’t see a way, considering the state we were in, especially the girls, that the cop wouldn’t pat everybody down. Bad news for one of us. I did a personal, mental inventory to determine my culpability. I felt no loyalty toward Emily, and anyway, Socrates had given her his loaded jacket, not me. If he wouldn’t intervene, why should I? I heard the cop’s door open and slam shut behind us.
Socrates apologized to Emily.
“In advance,” he told her.
Some people never get a chance at grace and just live out their lives unforgiven, perhaps the saddest thing in the world, certainly worth crying over, and suddenly I realized why Emily had broken down during our blunt-smoking session. It surged toward me: we couldn’t take our lives and burn off the impurities so long as everyone else was involved. See, we had to answer for all the world’s sins, not just those committed by us. That was the plight of humanity, but also its saving grace. It was how King David could bemoan and praise the Lord within the same psalm. And Emily, she just couldn’t understand. She’d never been down there, not really. But she sat in the back seat, eighteen years young, sunburned, lotioned, sweet-smelling, long-legged, bejacketed, with a drug charge in her borrowed pocket. I smiled. I rolled down the window.
Lucas Shepherd is a first-year MFA student at the University of New Mexico. He served in the United States Air Force from 2006-2010. He is currently working on a paranormal thriller novel.