There we were, all four of us, sitting on the edge of the pool solving the world’s problems. That’s what we called it when we got together for a round of serious drinking. I think Franco came up with it—he would’ve been the idea guy of the group, since Aldous was gone—but I can’t say for sure. The joke was that you never remembered the solution the next day.
I was on the outskirts of a mental haze, heading in. We were in our early 20’s—an age when summer still meant something—back home in suburban Denver. Like really suburban, where House A and House B look like they gave birth to House C and dressed it up with a trim lawn and close-cropped hedges to look just like them. It was late evening and grey clouds were mobilizing above the house next door. They looked so heavy they might come tumbling down from the sky and crash land in the Johnsons’ backyard.
“The sky looks pissed,” I said.
“Nah, that’s God,” said Randy. “The sky doesn’t have feelings. Whaddaya think we did to get him all riled up?”
“Got drunk,” said Franco.
“No way,” I said. “We haven’t even finished our second 24 pack.”
“Well, maybe he’s drunk and he’s getting all ornery,” suggested Louie.
“God doesn’t drink, ya idiot,” said Randy. “He’s straightedge.”
“Well something’s got him off his rocker. He needs a face full of snow,” I said. That was our phrase for a cold reset. Like when you’ve been inside drinking for too long and you get to feeling claustrophobic and lonely and pissed off at the world for locking you up in a safe where the combination’s too long to figure out in one lifetime and you step outside and stick your face in the snow to erase all that.
“He needs a good woman up there with him,” said Louie. “Then we’d have some more sunshine around here.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Franco, and we all took a swig.
Darker, soberer clouds filed in behind the first ones. We opened another 24 pack and a raindrop clanged off the metal top of my can. In my memory the sky swirls at a reckless pace, though often memory itself is the one swirling.
“Hey Franco, why are you always late to these get-togethers?” Randy asked.
“Why are you calling them get-togethers?” Franco replied.
“Dude, Franco, he’s right,” Louie said. “You suck at time.”
“I don’t suck at time. I just feel like I should have more control over it. Everything in this indoor Internet Age is supposed to give me more control over how I spend my time: why not how much time I have to spend? Or how long that time really lasts? Like, why’s time gotta be some kind of intractable function that operates without factoring me into the equation?”
“I thought there was an app for that…” Louie said.
Franco grinned. “But, yes, I am often late.”
“Is that an apology?” I asked him.
“More like an expression of regret,” he said.
“That counts! We got an apology out of Franco!”
“I’ll drink to that,” Randy said, and we all took a swig.
I would posit the three guys sitting by me at the pool that day as evidence that I was not self-centered. They might’ve said otherwise, but the truth is when I was around them I spent just about all my interest on their lives, which meant I never got a chance to over-examine my own, and I never felt that sensation of utter loneliness standing in front of a bathroom mirror. It was nice. I knew that anything the guys said to me was out of love, even the shit that was hardest to hear. They were my reminder of all the good, surprising things outside my window. Talking with them took me back in time.
The breeze felt damp and familiar although it seemed to have traveled a long way before getting to us. I was just about to say something when Franco opened his mouth.
“Remember Michael Clear?” he asked. “The lanky guy who didn’t say a single word in four years of high school?”
“We said some pretty mean shit to that guy,” Louie said. He kept watching the sky.
“Yeah, we thought we had it all figured out back then, but now I’m starting to think it was Michael who had the right idea,” Franco said.
“I had a locker next to him,” I said. “Never saw him put a book in his backpack, not even once. He walked around with that thing full of nothing but air.”
“Maybe he was Buddhist,” Randy offered.
“He wasn’t Buddhist,” Franco said. “But he was onto something. We wasted our breath complaining about the teachers and the classes and the idiotic kids that we saw as unworthy of our precious fucking time, and there he was, always a step ahead.” Franco watched the clouds now too. They were assembled for a full frontal assault. “We were as committed as guerrilla fighters. And to what? For what? You know? We didn’t have anything figured out. Maybe Michael did.”
“I heard him speak once, sort of,” Louie said. “At the bus stop after class. Aldous was giving him some shit. Not mean shit, but like his I-want-to- reconfigure-your-life shit, telling him he could make him social and self-aware and all the other stuff Aldous thought everyone needed. And the whole time Michael stood there staring at the bus stop sign, no grin or anything, no expression really. Until finally, Aldous came right out and asked him where he was going with his life, assuming he wouldn’t answer and he could draw up a path for him, and that mother-fucker pointed straight up at the sky, without taking his eyes off the sign.”
“What’d Aldous do?” I asked.
“Nothing. He just nodded. I guess he liked that plan as much as any he could’ve thought up.”
The first rumble of thunder wandered in like a bum hopping trains. It sounded hungry. I knew the clouds were coming to consume us. I drank faster.
“Aldous said Michael saw visions,” Franco said. “Like an Oracle or something.”
“Probably just hallucinating. Who knows what kind of drugs that guy was on?” I said.
“Maybe. I don’t know how he could tell without ever getting a word out of him, but Aldous was really sure of it. And I don’t think this was one of his screwball jokes. He was serious. I never understood how Michael made it through school without a single laugh, but Aldous said he was willing to bet Michael saw things alone in his room at night that made him laugh so hard he never needed to laugh during the day. Real things. . . things about the future. . . things that would come true one day for all of us, for all of humanity. And that’s why he never talked to anyone.”
“Well that’s some theory. Kinda makes me wanna track that Michael Clear down now—maybe he’s with the Illuminati,” Randy said.
“I wouldn’t want to know,” Louie said. “Even if he does see all that stuff, I wouldn’t want to. That’s a curse, if anything.”
“Guys, are you really believing this shit? Oracles haven’t been a thing since Ancient Greece, and even then people didn’t take them seriously,” I said.
“And look what happened to them,” Franco said.
“Yeah in the myths. This isn’t a fucking myth, this is real life! Besides, are you forgetting how many drugs Aldous did in high school? He should’ve been paid by neuroscientists for all the acid he tested!”
“What’s got you so ornery all of a sudden?”
I was looking more at the storm than at anyone in particular. I hadn’t noticed I was shouting, and I felt displaced by my anger. I was used to such a light- hearted vibe with these guys: joke, joke, story, joke, and then, joke. I’d disrupted the pattern, and I wanted it back.
“Must’ve been Randy’s gay-ass swim trunks,” I tried.
They all just looked at me. Franco shook his head and opened his mouth to speak but stopped. I already knew what he was going to say: What would Aldous think of that? And I already knew what Aldous would’ve thought of it.
“That was stupid,” I said. Everyone nodded. “Probably the reason I’m so on edge is I’ve been having dreams about Aldous. Really weird, fucked-up dreams, and they keep getting worse. In one I was in Aldous’s backyard, and I guess we’d been drinking because I really had to piss. So I went out to the tree in the back behind the longhorn statue, and as soon as I unzipped my fly Aldous was right there next to me, encouraging me, saying you can do this, Marc, like I needed help pissing or something. But I knew it wasn’t about the piss, so I said what? do what? and Aldous just pointed up at the sky.
“Then the next night I dreamed we were on a plane, all of us plus Aldous, flying god-knows-where, and the plane had seats in pairs going up one narrow aisle. I was sitting next to you, Randy, and Louie and Franco, you guys were sitting together in front of us, and Aldous was alone in the very front next to some old lady. All of a sudden I notice there’s blood all over Aldous’s window seat, and I look up and see he’s bleeding from both of his ears. It’s coming out like a full-on faucet, but no one else notices it, not even the lady sitting next to him. I try and run over to him but my seatbelt locks up and I can’t do anything but watch as he presses the call flight attendant button over and over, to a beat.” “Jesus,” said Randy. “That’s no dream. That’s a nightmare.”
There’s no such thing as true silence, but whatever this was, it was close. And it lasted long enough for me to focus in on a single raindrop as it hit the surface of the pool, stopping suspended in a bubble for a sliver of time before bursting upward in the shape of a tiny geyser.
Franco broke the trance: “Such a mysterious dude, that Aldous. Like, you’d see him with so much conviction telling people how to live their lives more fully, wake up from the dream, and all that, but when the time came for him to act on everything he’d said, you never knew what he was gonna do.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He never stood up for Michael Clear when we’d bully him. He just kinda… grimaced. I didn’t even realize they were friends.”
“There was that one time,” Louie said. “Where he held an assembly for him.”
“What?” I said.
“It was quite the standing-up-for moment. You don’t remember that?” “I must’ve skipped that day. What happened?” I asked.
“Remember how everyone at school was so sick of Führer Bosch and his totalitarian headmaster speeches that they petitioned for students to run assemblies every once in a while?” Louie said.
“Yeah, Old Bosch Man was floored.”
“Well the petition got approved and Aldous signed up to put together the first assembly. He named himself the speaker and chose human rights as the topic.”
“How did I not know this?”
“Dude, none of us knew it until the assembly,” Randy said. “Aldous kept the whole thing a secret. Even from us.”
“When I saw Aldous walk out on stage in front of the whole school I nearly lost it,” Franco said. “I half-expected Nelson Mandela to follow him out there.”
“Yeah,” Louie continued. “None of us knew what to expect. Then, when he got up to the mic he didn’t introduce himself or anything; he just went straight into a list of classic fucked-up villains of history. Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, Hannibal Lector, Charles Manson, Idi Amin—”
“Pol Pot,” Randy added.
“And then he goes, What do all these people have in common..? That’s right, they were bullied in high school.”
“What the hell?”
“It was crazy.” Louie said. “No one in the crowd knew how to act. We just sat there while Aldous read off this long manifesto declaring freedom from bullying to be a human right. But that wasn’t even the wildest part. After that he brought up Michael Clear. He listed off all the shitty things people have said about him over the years and called for it to stop. Demanded, really. He was making demands.”
“I can’t believe I never heard about this.”
“I never talked about it,” Louie said. “I don’t think any of us did.” Randy and Franco shook their heads. “Aldous certainly didn’t.”
I wondered how many other Aldous stories must be floating around out there. Meanwhile, the sky was really letting us have it. It was as if enormous black buckets had overflowed, spilling their contents all over the yard. I hadn’t noticed the transition, and I took a second to appreciate it, tilting my head back and feeling the rain knock against my eyelids. Franco enjoyed it the most. While we sat on the edge he got all the way into the pool and squatted in the shallow end with his eyes barely above the water, watching the raindrops form craters in its surface.
I had to ask, “Did Michael and Aldous ever talk again?”
“Man, I really doubt it,” Louie said. “I haven’t seen them together since.” “I bet no one messed with Michael after that,” I said.
“I’ll drink to that,” said Franco, and we did.
A sudden streak of lightning split the darkness and I saw a still of the whole neighborhood—stationary, stoic, whitewashed by light and generations of monotony—with the edges ablaze like a flaming polaroid. A few seconds later the thunder answered.
It was Randy, or maybe Louie, who said this next thing: If you count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, you can tell how far away they are. For every five seconds that’s a mile. We slid into the pool, all of us, keeping our eyes just above the water like Franco as we counted out loud the seconds between sight and sound. Four after the second strike: 0.8 miles. 13 blocks.
Our heads were jagged rocks jutting out from the tide. Three seconds away, then two. And we kept squatting there in that godforsaken pool, holding our ground and our aluminum cans in a determined stance of resistance. A sit-in. One second—three blocks away—and even with my eyes closed I could see the lightning rip the air in half and land gracefully on Ms. Lundermeyer ’s satellite dish.
God was screaming at us, and when the thunder became so deafening you could see the vibrations on the surface of the pool we screamed back, calling him a fuck-up and a sadistic cunt, until those words meant nothing, then cursing him with new, made-up hate words from imaginary languages he surely recognized. That fucker knew exactly what he’d done.
-Harrison Gatlin, class of 2016