Jim has been away from this neck of the river a good while. Back in the day he used to come all the time with Chapa. Chapa had wheels; he’d salvaged a beat-up old Chevy from the impound and spent a summer fixing it up. Half the passenger’s side door was rusted through and the Check Engine light wouldn’t turn off and there was just an empty socket where the E brake should have been, but it was effective. Saturday mornings he’d swing by Jim’s dad’s and lean on the horn until Jim ran outside, and they’d drive like the Mad Boys they were to the bend in the highway where the fence dropped off. You had to park on the shoulder and sort of skid down the sandy incline through the trees, and half the time Jim would come home with bramble scrapes all over his shins, but down here in the gully the river was icy clean, the narrow sky bright blue, the trout fat splashing silver, down here in the gully he and Chapa could dose in peace. If you timed it right, and took enough, and maybe wore the 3D glasses Chapa pinched from the drive-in off USX, by the time you were peaking the noontime sun would just have tipped over the edge of the ravine, flooding every shadow and dazzling the rapids. Chapa would whoop and jump from the bank and tear off his shirt and throw off his shoes and chase the sparkles that floated up off the river, gobbling each one up in turn—beautiful, thrashing wet—Look at me! I’m PacMan, man! I’m eating the sun!
Today is a mild day at the tail end of winter, sixteen years since. Jim was supposed to have been in the air right now, en route to Florida from the Boston consulting firm where he just made Junior VP of Client Acquisition, to hang out at Spring Training with half a dozen of his most valued clients. But this year he’s postponed the trip a few days to come home. The occasion: yet another funeral. Two weeks ago Chapa’s old girlfriend Amber OD’d. OxyContin. The second in her nuclear family, the twelfth in his high school—that he knows of. Jim heard the news from his stepmom, who heard it from Chapa’s mom, Win. He never knew Amber too well but when he thinks of her the moments he remembers feel good and sad and real. How Chapa pined for her in ninth grade math class. How she once showed up at Jim’s dad’s in tears because she thought Chapa’d gone missing. Her mascara stain never came out of his Grizzlies jersey. How one velvet night they skinny-dipped, all of them—Jim, Chapa, Amber, and that other girl, what’s her name—and the girls slept sweet and quiet under a furniture pad in the bed of the Chevy while Jim and Chapa shared their last cigarette and made big plans in the cracking dawn. How just a year and a half ago, when Jim ran into her in the Hannaford’s near his dad’s, Amber dropped two shrink-wrapped chicken breasts in surprise, and laughed. How, when he invited her out for a beer, she confessed she was ten weeks sober.
She didn’t say anything about Chapa then, and he hadn’t wanted to ask. The truth is Jim came down for the funeral not for her sake—if he came for every funeral he’d be here every month, pretty much—but because he thought that for this one Chapa might come too. But Chapa was not among the mourners at the church today. He was not at the wake at Amber’s sister’s. And he is not down here in the gully now. Jim sits, disregarding his nice black pants, and takes off his ill-conceived dress shoes. He regrets wearing them. They pinch his heels, and he looked like a tool at the wake. Amber’s sister was wearing jeans, for God’s sake. When he offered his condolences she looked at him like a stranger. The sandy red soil is so cold it numbs his toes, but it is a relief to let his bare feet come in contact again with this earth he knows so well. He tosses a pebble and watches it disappear into the river’s sputtering folds. What kind of asshole has he become?
He could have tried harder to get in touch with Chapa, but he left this town when cell phones were still luxury items, uncommon, at least among people like them, and anyway the truth is he’s been shy. He isn’t ashamed of how his life has turned out—he makes good money, has a bright young kid and a smart, no-bullshit wife—but whenever he’s thought of reconnecting with Chapa, when he’s thought of Chapa at all—Chapa with his shirt off, lithe brown body splashing; Chapa yelping, eating the sun—he’s felt a surge of emotion so electric it’s almost erotic. His eagerness embarrasses him. He has tried to explain this to Denise. But how to describe the Mad Boy who still lives so loudly, so colorfully, in Jim’s memory? How to describe the way one single boy—along with enough acid, most weekends, to kill a small bear—rewove the very fabric of his mind?
The closest he’s come is a drunken confession one night after a boozy fundraising dinner for their kid’s charter school. A teenaged dance troupe had performed, and a couple of them had actually been really good, elastic joints and muscles like springs, and he’d felt her watching him watching them, felt his own sluggish, Jesus-aged body. On the couch afterward with the lights off, as they dutifully drank their water before bed, he buried his head in Denise’s lap and told her: “I loved him.”
“Loved whom?” she said. Whom. She was a smart-ass like that, but he knew she knew who he meant. He didn’t reply. She put a hand on his forehead. “I know you did,” she said.
“He opened my eyes,” Jim told her. “He made me see that the world is in our minds. That time is elastic. That space is infinite. That solid is just liquid, but slower, and that there’s infinite space between every atom, and that color’s just a bunch of vibrations.”
From his vantage point in her lap he could see up her nostrils, those twin tunnels that led all the way to her capable brain. “Listen,” he said. “What do you see when you see color?”
She looked around the bedroom. “As I recall, these walls are Benjamin Moore Canyon Light. In the Pier 1 catalog the couch, I think, was called Sorrel. The curtains in the downstairs bathroom were, oh my god, Lady Slipper.” She made an amused sound through her nose.
“I don’t mean paint.” He struggled up. “I don’t mean fabric swatches.” He pointed at the lamp in the corner, a cheap Ikea contraption that had never really stood up straight. “What do you see when you look at that light?”
“I see a lamp. Which is missing a screw.” She patted his head. “Much like you.”
“I see rainbows.” As if to demonstrate, he looked at the light and turned his gaze slowly toward her, then turned it back again, and the light stretched and unraveled into all its constituent colors, then knit itself back together. That was the grand synthetic beauty that Chapa helped imprint on him. “Even now, light has tails, color trails. I still see rainbows. After all these years.”
A reasonable woman who thinks of color as a material that comes in flat, matte, and satin, a comforting practical woman, a fearless woman, Denise said, “That is because you are an acid casualty. And a goon.” But months later when he told her Amber had died it was she who encouraged him to go home for the funeral. “Don’t you want to see your friend Chapa?”
The name in her voice was jarring to Jim. It didn’t sound right. “I guess.”
“The whole time I’ve known you, you’ve never visited the guy. I’m starting to think you made him up. Your magical Indian friend. Which, by the way, are you aware that the way you talk about him, it’s maybe a little bit racist?”
Jim must have made a face, because she repeated herself, altering her emphasis.
“Just maybe a little bit racist. How close were the two of you, anyway? Why have I never met him?”
“I don’t know. We lost touch,” Jim said. “He isn’t on Facebook.”
“Go home, Jimmy! Go see your friend. Take a selfie with the guy. I want to see him with my own eyes.” Denise is amused at best by Jim’s brambly thoughts, but because she urges him to confront his own mind, he knows she will always protect him.
And because he knows she would be happy to receive a picture of him beside his old friend—he’s pictured the picture many times: both of them grinning, holding beers, Chapa taller and stunning, Jim balder and paler but made handsome by joy—he is all that much more disappointed today that Chapa’s not here. At the brief wake he did see Chapa’s mom, Win. How’s Chapa doing? he asked her, and Win squinted up at him, squeezing her left arm with her right hand, black lashes gray hair, too distracted by grief to be glad to see him. You know Chapa, she said, and Jim nodded and looked down at the ground, because you’re supposed to give people enough silence and space to keep their grief to themselves. Now he regrets not saying, Actually no, I don’t, not anymore, regrets asking how when he could have asked where. Could have asked for his number.
Could he have asked for his number? Would that have been weird?
The trouble is, Denise’s interrogation still rings in his mind. How close were the two of you, anyway? He’s not sure he knows. How many times did they get fucked up together in this very gully? Two dozen times? Ten times? Twice? Maybe Denise was right, in a way, and he has made Chapa up—not entirely—just maybe a little bit—just the same sort of way that a kid makes up an idea of his mother before he’s able to understand what kind of woman she actually is, or the way a person who’s never been to, say, India, pieces together his own mental collage out of, let’s say, some crowded street he saw in a film, rock-cut temples from an in-flight travel magazine, Bollywood, tigers, lotuses, the Taj Mahal, and a memorable GQ photo shoot of Priyanka Chopra. The Chapa he thinks he knows is not much more than a collage of teenaged memories, fantasies, the light trails he still sees, and his own dim understanding of history. Let’s not forget that Jim’s ancestors’ hands were stained by Chapa’s ancestors’ blood. Once in this very gully, tripping balls, Chapa told him: Your people massacred my people. If time is a circle, and time is a circle, Jimmy, you massacred me. Teenaged Jim looked at his friend lying there on the red earth, and as he watched, the earth became blood. It seeped out of and pooled around Chapa’s brown body, and Chapa was still, and Jim was dumbstruck by the violence from which he was descended. For hours he was convinced he had lost the ability to speak.
In his memory the river is a stop-motion rainbow machine, but today it is muddy gray. Jim stands and rolls up his pants and wades into the shallows. The water’s so cold it feels boiling hot. Not only is the river less colorful; it is narrower now. The region has undergone a long drought. He is struck by the absence of life. The trees at the edges of the gully are still winter-bare, their black branches like cracks in the sky. A fish skeleton lies on the shore, in a bed of its own dried-out skin. Amber is dead and her brother’s dead, too, and so are twelve other people Jim once knew. And so is the fish, and so are the shrubs, and so are his toes, which have gone white and stabby, and so, in the end, is his friendship.
And then, deep inside his memory, something is lifted. Some small corner of memory is peeled up, and he has a clear, true recollection. That day he tripped so hard he thought he was mute? He and Chapa were not alone. Amber was there. She was sitting beside him. She was watching Chapa, too. He remembers her bare ankles, the cigarette between her fingers, he remembers her narrow, love-struck, teenaged face. She loved Chapa as hard as Jim did. She kept him company in that embarrassing love. He wants to tell her so. He wants to thank her. He wants to apologize for leaving her out of the picture for so long.
But he can’t, of course. So he wades back to shore. Brushes off his feet. Puts on his socks, one by one. He forces back on his two stupid shoes and turns back toward the rental car he left parked on the shoulder. He is numb, he is dumb. He is heading back to the airport.