I wish I never heard Ronnie’s words. They come back to me, sometimes, when the moon is low and hangs with that open-eyed stare, the same way the teachers used to stare at us. Ms. Powers in sixth, Mr. Jordan in seventh, the three us in the back with our hornets and chewing gum and wet paper pellets.
“We’re going to the Marymount Cliffside.”
Benji and I stared through him, trying to avoid his pig trough gaze, his upturned nose that sucked his face inward. Ronnie said it again, louder.
“Marymount Cliffside. Tonight. We’ll bring rocks to throw into the river.”
Benji scratched his forehead, little beads of sweat and dirt moving under his fingernail. “My mom wants me home by eight. She’s making meatloaf.”
“Fuck her meatloaf. You’re coming to Marymount. You too, Snyder.”
I turned my eyes upward, towards the clouds and the razorback shingles that ran through the pines. It was that time of day when the crows hid somewhere else, so the telephone wires hung straight and empty in the pink tinted sky. The world was geometric.
“Sure. Whatever.” I’d just seen Rebel Without a Cause that morning and had slicked my hair back with my father’s Layrite. It felt like warm butter across my scalp.
Ronnie grunted and saddled back onto his bike seat. The red Stingray looked tired under his striped belly and freckled knuckles.
“We’ll meet at the gazebo on Highland at seven. Don’t be late.” Then, using all his weight, he checked the air with his shoulder and started biking the opposite direction. Ronnie always rode with such balance despite his figure, and he looked so symmetrical against the identical homes that you would’ve thought he’d never been anywhere but that road.
Benji twitched when he was far and out of view. “I don’t want to go there. I don’t like heights.” His Keds were untied yet the laces were perfectly white. The front of his shirt was speckled wet, and pit stains the size of nickels had begun to creep forward.
“Relax, Benji. You can stand near the trees. I’ll stick with Ronnie.” I ran a hand across my hair. You read too many comic books, I heard the rebel saying.
“Well, OK. As long as you come along, Snyder.” There was a sweet pucker on his face when he said that a face he never made around Ronnie. Benji mounted his thinner steed, a Schwinn Continental 10 Speed, and leaned over the front. “Promise you’ll be there?”
Benji nodded and began biking home. Then it was just me, alone on the boulevard, smoke without a fire. I started on my way, the opposite direction from Benji and Ronnie, and wondered where those damn crows were hiding.
I don’t remember meeting at the gazebo- rebels never show up early- but I do remember biking through the pines to the cliffside. The night was star filled, and if we had ever thought to slow down, we might have noticed the comets that frequented that summer. How could we slow down, though? Instead, we pushed our legs as fast as they would take us, the playing cards in our spokes sounding like the rattle of a roulette pill, clinking and popping from red to green, red to green. Once we made it to Old Man Mooney’s cabin, our tires cut into the asphalt, leaving three strikes of rubber behind us. They smelled warm and acrid.
“From here, we walk. The old man doesn’t like no one coming back here.” Ronnie unmounted his bike and hid it behind some bushes.
“Is this legal?” Benji asked.
Ronnie didn’t say anything- just narrowed his eyebrows as a prisoner might to a nosy warden. He seemed so much paler in the dead light, his freckles forming their own orange constellations.
“Mooney falls asleep at five o’clock, Benji. He’s never even heard of Johnny Carson.”
Benji’s face perked up a sliver, and he nodded, pushing his Schwinn into the same enclave as Ronnie’s. He lay it down gently to protect the baby blue paint job, which glittered like a stolen piece from above. I was the last, moving my bike near the others, and together we shuffled some limbs to cover the spot.
“This way, and be quiet,” Ronnie said. He began walking up a steep powdery path riddled with brown pine needles. Little spurts of dust billowed behind every step, and I ran after them, careful to keep my head down passing Mooney’s dark window.
Under the overhang of trees, I glanced back to see Benji motionless, his arms clutched together and his head down. I gave a soft whistle, like you might a dog, and he looked at me, his eyes abounding with white flesh. I edged out a smile, thin and tight lipped. That’s all it took- Benji nodded and started up behind me. Together, we began following Ronnie’s footsteps into the advancing pines.
What I remember most was how black that path was. It didn’t make sense how the pines could block out so much of the moonlight, but they did, and we had to rely on that tiny white path to get us up to the cliffside. It was a long way up, and by the time we reached the clearing, we were both huffing like hot kettles. Ronnie sat on a stump, his face a sheet of wet plastic, and looked out at the cliffside. “We made it.”
Marymount is the kind of place that the tourist board might call a “hidden gem.” It hangs high above Roosevelt River, rich with the white chalky substance that marked our path up the hill. In the day, some families will take their children to dip in the icy brook below and point out the pouty overgrown lip with steady hand. “Listen,” they say, “you are not to mount that cliff, see? Look how the granite gives way to silt. Look how shiny and ready-to-give it is.” And the children nod, and follow their hand, but sooner or later, they will return like Odysseus, under the cover of nightfall, to see the cliff with new eyes.
That’s what I had felt in that moment. The stars seemed so much closer from this place, as if I could pluck them from above and skip them across the river. In fact, everything seemed closer. The river, despite being a hundred feet below, babbled right in my ear, crystal cold words of persuasion. Maybe I’d cannonball across it, break its glassy face, and pull the stars in with me.
Benji didn’t stray from his stance near the tree line, but he was speechless in the face of the opening. I could see Orion’s Belt reflected in his glasses and his ivory smile. “This is amazing.”
“Sure. Whatever,” I said. Benji smiled again.
Ronnie didn’t seem to care much for the view- instead, he was scouring for rocks to throw, his belly protruding from the bottom of his shirt. “We want big ones,” he grunted. “They’ll sound better when they hit the river.” His hand nestled on a medium size stone, gray and dusty, about the size of a grapefruit. He hoisted it onto his shoulder and with a short roll, he punched it through the warm air and over the ravine. It floated for a moment, as if gravity was some rule that schools had gotten all wrong- the apple had gone towards the clouds, Ms. Powers, not Newton’s head. Then it contradicted itself and plummeted, fast and out of sight, and two seconds later, a black clop rattled up the cliffside. Ronnie smiled with dirty, badgered fingers.
“Your turn, Snyder.” He was already back to fishing, and this time, he found a bigger rock, maybe twice the size of his own. He had to pry it from the roots of an old standing pine, and when I took it over my shoulder, I was afraid a colony of ants might emerge and find a new home within my ear canal. There were no ants, though- just the dead weight of matter over the warm thin bones of the living.
I hesitated, my shoes liking the security fifteen feet from the lip, but Ronnie’s fingertips were on my back, and it worked to get me moving. The change in perspective was memorable- everything went from close and snug to far, far out. Each step seemed to push the stars higher, to drop the river farther, until the only thing I could really hold onto was the wind, which blew high and proud against my beat up Levi’s. It was American boyhood, all right, but it was not for me.
I tossed the rock like a toy that had lost my interest, and it rolled in front of me before catching speed down the cliff face. Unlike Ronnie’s big clop, my sound was a series of beats, each thicker and more violent before a final trill at the riverbank. In my mind, that rock had fallen apart far before it touched the water- I wasn’t going to lean over and confirm it. “Lame,” Ronnie said. “That sounded like crap.”
I puttered back next to Benji and mounted another pine tree. The cool underlook had faded from my face, and my eyes had adopted the wideness that I always associated with Benji. The two of us were silent.
“Alright, Benji.” The truffle pig had sniffed something large in between a cluster of stones, and he was on his knees excavating it. “Get over here.”
Benji froze. I remember that same placid glow was upon him, and he looked like one of those Chechen dolls, the ones without arms. I think he wished his arms were gone, too, so he’d have a good excuse to stay where he was. But no excuse existed. He looked up at me, Orion snatched from his gaze.
I butt in. “He’s not feeling it, Ronnie. The stones you’re picking up are too big, anyways.”
“Bullshit,” Ronnie said, and between his fingers was the rock, heavier than all the rest. He waddled it over to Benji, a slathering of white dust on Ronnie’s chest and biceps and eyebrows. “Take it, Benji.”
“No,” Benji said.
Ronnie’s eyes turned into beestings, and he thrust the rock toward Benji, calling his bluff. It worked- Benji stumbled back, the weight of the rock almost bringing him to the ground. It took everything Benji had to keep his feet planted.
“Go throw it, pussy.” Ronnie had moved behind him now and was giving him the dreaded finger-press out of the tree line.
“Please, Ron. I don’t like this.” Benji said, yet still, his fingers stayed clamped on the rock.
Ronnie was silent, keeping his pulse on the small of Benji’s back. Benji looked back once more, hopelessly, deliriously. My mouth was poised to shout one more objection, but I stayed quiet.
There’s a scene in Rebel Without a Cause, where James Dean races another rebel down a dirt road towards an open cliff face. The cars end up flinging off the cliff with the rebel inside, and there’s a frame I remember clear as that night on Marymount- it’s the view of the open sea, black and frothy from a mile in the air, pasted through the shuddering dashboard of a Mercury Coupe. I wonder if that’s what Benji saw, as he fell a hundred feet face first towards Roosevelt River.
It was the Keds, those damn Keds, with the perfect white shoelaces that wouldn’t stick together. All day, they hadn’t caused any problems, but two feet from the lip, they found each other, tightening in a web around Benji’s feet. With the weight of the rock at his stomach, it was fast, like a magic trick that had been planned without my knowing. It was the sound that made it real. A piercing blast of fear came from over the cliffside, followed by ten to fifteen beats of contact- similar to my rock, but wetter. The force of his tumble seemed to shake through my feet, through the pine needles, through the stars above. The sound of a splash folded into the babbling, as if nothing had happened. That's what woke me up, and I raced to the cliffside behind Ronnie. “BENJI!” I cried, looking over the edge.
Mounds of dust had gone airborne in the fall, and they floated like wasted white spirits all the way down the cliffside. I searched over the river. Frothy gulleys pounded in their usual flow, and from this height, Benji wasn’t spotted among them. “BENJI!” I yelled again.
“He’s gone, Snyder.” Ronnie said. Even before looking, I could hear the half-grin against his cheeks. “We have to go.”
“NO!” I screamed. The gel in my hair was giving way, standing tall like the fur of a rabid dog. “WE’RE GETTING BENJI!”
“No one survives that fall.” Ronnie said. He put his fingertips up against my chest. “Let’s get out of here.”
There was an implication to his touch. It was as real as the cliffside which I’d backed myself against- as real as Benji’s pitch black scream. Ronnie had always known the stakes. I had only just realized.
I gulped down some dry, dusty air and nodded. Ronnie’s fingertips turned into a fist, and within his grasp was my t-shirt. He pulled me away from the cliffside, and without speaking, we ran. Everything was shaky- my legs wobbled against unseen divots and loose rocks, and my vision was no help. Tears streamed over my cheeks, and I looked to the stars, to guide me through the passageway. No such help existed.
We made it down to Old Man Mooney’s place in fifteen minutes. I was sheening with sweat, and Ronnie was too, but he held none of that in his face. It was lax, without emotion as it dug through the bike pile. I wiped my tears again and searched for Orion one last time, as if to find Benji sitting among the belt. What I saw was much worse.
Straddled across Mooney’s thatch board cabin were hundreds of crows, glistening purple under the moonlight. There wasn’t much space, and they seemed to be stepping over each other, feathers intertwining and turning the roof into a living black carpet. When I noticed them, every head swiveled towards me. Their eyes were the same as Ronnie’s.
My tears froze, and I brought my hands up to my ears. My mouth dropped to let loose everything I had gained that night. One more second and I would have released it. Maybe things would have been different if I had- Mooney would have found us, and I would have spilled the story. But before I could, Ronnie was handing me my bicycle, and we were back on the road, heading home.
It all settled down in the end, kind of like those blown down houses you see on the news after a hurricane. The damage was there- they ruled it a suicide from a kid “too smart for his own good”- but after a while people carried on. We stomped across the rubble, young boys turning into men.
After that night, Ronnie and I never hung out again. It just happened one day at the cafeteria, where I took a new table and never looked back. He never came looking. I thought that was for the best.
We went to different high schools, and that made things better. I met a girl, Maggie, and we haven’t split in 16 years. I joined the football team- I think Benji would have liked that- and once, at our Homecoming game, I spotted Ronnie on the visiting sideline, hunched like a bull with eye black under his mask. I chose not to say hello- we’d left all our conversations at Marymount.
There are a million places to go from here, a million stories I picked up along the way, but the only one that really matters happened two weeks ago. Maggie gave birth. She’d been so excited, painting the nursery cyan and picking the clothes and playing Bach with headphones on her belly. She even liked the name I picked out, Benji Atkinson- she said it danced across her tongue, and she went on to repeat it a hundred times, smiling all the while.
I knew what had occurred when I saw the doctor pull him out- there was a sea of liquid, and then there was the baby, silent and swollen and limp. I could taste the irony immediately, along with the sweat and the disinfectant in the air, and I began to cry, the tears coming as easily as they had all those years before. Maggie stared up at me, dead eyed and exhausted, wondering why she couldn’t hear her son. I didn’t have the heart to tell her.
She’s bundled up at home now, under a cardigan with warm tea brewing on the stove. I left without telling her, and I don’t think she’ll notice anyway. I’ll be back before tomorrow, anyways.
I did some digging, and it turns out Ronnie lives four towns over. A thirty minute drive. All my life, I’d been putting distance between us, and the farthest I got was a hundred miles. Today, it works in my favor. I want to pay him a visit.
It’s a quarter til' midnight, and I have a hammer in my pocket. Don’t know why, but it was sticking out of the toolbox in my trunk, and the weight of it feels right as I walk up to his doorstep. Getting closer, a memory crosses my mind- a scene from Rebel, of James Dean on his mother’s staircase. His words- “but I AM involved! We are ALL INVOLVED!”- have never made more sense in my life.
My finger hovers over the doorbell. Before pressing it, I look up into the sky, that Marymount sky that I almost dove into, and I notice that the moon is watching me.