The human eye can discern more shades of green than of any other color. My friend Delaney told me that. She said it’s an adaptation from when ancient humans lived in forests. Our eyes evolved that way as a survival mechanism to spot predators hiding in the vegetation.
There are as many tinges of understanding as there are hues of green in a forest.
Some things are easy to understand. There’s a natural logic, a clear cause and effect. Like how an engine works. When I was eleven, my papaw pulled the engine out of his Chevy pickup and took it apart, letting me help him rebuild it. He laid the pieces out--reeking of dark oil and scorched steel--on a torn and greasy sheet, like the bones of an unearthed dinosaur. As we worked, he explained the function of each piece and what it contributed to make the engine run. It made sense, how he said it.
He wasn’t sick then. Later, when he was, I understood that when he used to say Don’t nobody live forever when accepting another piece of his sister Betsy’s chess pie, that wasn’t just a phrase he used. That was when he still had an appetite.
Now his appetite has moved to his lungs, which are always starved for air. His breathing has the keening note of the wind blowing over something sharp. It’s always there, which means he has something sharp inside him. People can’t live long with sharp things in them. I understand this.
Some things I understand without understanding them. Like how the Pigeon River moves and pulses like a living creature, never the same twice when I’m on it, which is as often as I can be. Or how sometimes you can stand in a quiet parking lot on a hot afternoon and perfectly envision what it would have looked like there before humankind existed. I do this often. It brings me comfort but I don’t understand why.
Other things I don’t understand at all.
How Delaney Doyle’s mind works, for example. Trying to comprehend it is like trying to form a coherent thought in a dream. Every time you think you’re there, it blurs.
You’ll be talking with her and she’ll abruptly disappear into herself. She’ll go to that place where the world makes sense to her. Where she sees fractals in the growth of honeysuckle bushes and elegant patterns in the seemingly aimless drift of clouds and the meandering fall of snowflakes. Substance in the dark part of flames. Equations in the dust from moths’ wings. The logic of winds. Signs and symbols. An invisible order to the world. Complex things make sense to her and simple things don’t.
She’s tried to explain how her mind functions, without success. How do you tell someone what salt tastes like? Sometimes you just know the things you know. It’s not her fault we don’t get it. People still treat her like she’s to blame.
Some aren’t okay with not understanding everything. But I’m not afraid of a world filled with mystery. It’s why I can be best friends with Delaney Doyle.
A carload of girls from my high school is trying to exit out the entrance of the Dairy Queen. I pause to let them. Then I pull in, my lawn mower rattling in the back of my pickup--the same truck whose engine my papaw and I rebuilt.
The early evening July sun blazes like bonfirelight on the hills behind the Dairy Queen. They’re a soft green, as if painted in watercolor. Gleaming soapsud clouds tower behind them. Delaney told me once that the mountains of East Tennessee are among the oldest in the world, but time has beaten them down. Sounds about right.
Delaney stands outside, her shadow long and spindly against the side of the building. She’s wearing her work uniform--a blue baseball cap, blue polo shirt, and black pants--and holds a cup with a spoon sticking out of it. With her other hand, she twists her auburn ponytail and presses her thumb on the end, tufted like the tip of a paintbrush. It’s one of her many nervous tics.
The expression on her face is one she often has--her eyes appear ancient and able to see all things at once, unbound through time and space. It’s what I imagine God’s face looked like before summoning the world out of the ether.
If God were wearing a Dairy Queen baseball cap, I guess.
I’m in no hurry, so I wait, out of curiosity. It takes longer than you’d think for her to notice I’m there.
“It’s fine. I had no plans for my Saturday night but waiting in the DQ parking lot,” I say out my open window as she finally approaches. I try to play it straight-faced, but I never manage with her.
She gets in, giving me the cup to hold while she buckles up. “You’re late.”
“By like two minutes.” I go to hand her back the cup.
She refuses it. “That’s for you. Started melting because you were late. Your punishment.”
“Based on how close you were watching for me, you were obviously deeply concerned. Oreo Blizzard?”
“Nice.” I take a bite and study her face for a moment. “How was work?”
“You smell like gasoline and cut grass. Did you know the scent of mown grass is a distress signal?”
“It’s from green leaf volatiles. They help the plant form new cells to heal faster and stop infection. Scientists think it’s a type of chemical language between plants. So you’re covered in the liquid screams of grass you’ve massacred.”
“I could’ve showered off all this grass blood before picking you up, but then I’d’ve been even more late.”
“Didn’t say I minded,” she murmurs, not making eye contact. “Plant screams smell nice.”
“You reek like french fries,” I say, leaning toward her and taking an exaggerated whiff. “The smell of french fries? Potatoes shrieking for their babies.”
“I’ll slaughter some potatoes. I don’t care.”
“You just gonna pretend I didn’t ask how work was?” I put my truck in gear and back out.
She twists the end of her ponytail. “The Phantom Shitter struck again.”
“The Phantom Shitter?”
“Some dude who comes in once a week or so and absolutely wrecks the men’s room. No one ever sees him come or go. We’ve even checked security tapes. It’s a pooping ghost.”
“Imagine dying and haunting the Earth and making it your mission to befoul the Sawyer Dairy Queen.”
“Befoul. Where’d you get that word?”
“Dunno. Besides the Phantom Shitter, how was work?”
“Got in trouble.”
“Did an interview with NPR on my break and it went long.”
“Damn, Red, getting even more famous.”
“You too,” Delaney says with an impish smile.
“What?” I ask around a spoonful of Blizzard.
“I mentioned you.”
“Hell you did.” I look at her, aghast.
She smiles again.
I shake my head. “ ‘I couldn’t have made this discovery without Cash Pruitt.’ That what you said? ‘No one else on planet Earth could have paddled me out to a secret cave along the Pigeon River so I could find some bacteria--’ ”
“Big difference biologically.”
“Fine. ‘Mold that kills the nastiest bacteria.’ ”
“Don’t forget driving me to Nashville to show my results to Dr. Srinavasan. Said that.”
“Oh, right. No one else could’ve done that.”
“No one else did do that. Anyway, yeah, that’s about what I said.”
I wipe my hand down my face. “Lord above.”
“Stop being dramatic.”
I raise my index finger. “What’s the one thing you know about me?”
“I know you asked me once if peanuts are a type of wood. No, they aren’t.”
“That I like to earn what I get.”
“Right. Cash Pruitt: famously a lover of earning.”
“So you’re out there telling people I did something without me earning it.”
“If it makes you happy, I still took credit for running the experiments and figuring out the mold’s antibiotic properties.”
I lower the visor against the sinking sun. A ray catches a crack in the windshield and illuminates it, a tiny comet. I’ve always loved when the light finds the broken spots in the world and makes them beautiful.
I glance over at Delaney. She’s turned inward, squinting her honey-colored eyes against the orange glare splashed across her pale skin, on the freckles that dot her nose and cheekbones like an atlas of stars. She brushes a stray piece of hair from her face.
“Seems like you could get a better job than DQ now that you’re in the news and doing interviews on the radio,” I say.
“It requires no mental energy, so I can think about other stuff and get paid for it.”
“Your life. Wanna ride around some, then go watch Longmire with Pep?”
“Can’t. Babysitting Braxton and Noah later,” Delaney says.
“He’ll be bummed.”
“Tell him I’m sorry and next time I come I’ll tell him about gympie gympie.”
“The hell is that?”
She always looks happiest right before she’s about to deliver some horrifying factoid about the natural world. She radiates pure joy now. “Australian shrub. Read about it last night. The leaves are covered in these little silica-tipped bristles--silica’s the stuff they make glass out of--and then these bristles deliver a neurotoxin that causes horrible pain for days, months, and even years. So if you brush up against it, the whiskers dig into your skin and the pain’ll be so intense it’ll make you puke.”
“Good Lord. That sounds like it came from outer space.”
“As long as the hairs stay in your skin, the pain continues. It feels like being burned alive. They’re hard to remove, too. Your whole lymphatic system swells up. Armpits. Throat. Groin. It’s a nightmare.”
“Why are you telling me about this?”
“You’re constantly waging war against the plant world. Thought you might like to know they have a revenge weapon.”
I point back over my shoulder at the lawn mower in my truck bed. “I mow lawns and trim shrubs. They grow the hell back. That’s like saying barbers are waging war on heads.”
“There’s an apocryphal story about someone wiping their ass with gympie gympie leaves and . . . it didn’t end well. Get it? End.”
“Please tell me apocryphal means ‘completely and entirely false.’ ”
She cackles. “The gympie gympie’s gonna find you,” she says in a singsong voice.
“It’s gonna crawl up your ass. Give you gympie butt.”
“I’ll sleep with my lawn mower in my bed. If it tries, I’ll fire that up and mow the shit out of it. Be like, ‘Who’s in pain now, gympie gympie? Warn your friends.’ ”
“I wanna be the one to tell Pep about it. Don’t spoil it,” Delaney says.
“You think his life will improve knowing about this plant?”
“He loves my facts.”
“Don’t know why. You got time for me to stop for gas?”
“I don’t have to be to Noah and Braxton’s for a while.”
I pull into the RiteQuik, park, and start filling up my truck. Cicadas thrum like a thought that won’t leave your mind. The turpentine scent of sun-warm pine tar and distant grill smoke hangs thick in the air, mixing with the smell of gas and oil leaking on hot engines. In front of the store, two girls in neon bikini tops and Daisy Dukes sit in the back of a Jeep with the top removed, talking and laughing raucously, primping and taking selfies. The radio blares Florida Georgia Line.
The night has started to breathe its first cool breaths. They feel like river water on my face. The summer days here end like a kid who’s been running as fast as he can, then comes inside and falls asleep in front of a fan.
I go inside to pay. When I come out, the pulsing bass from a car stereo rattles my lungs and diaphragm. A purple Dodge Challenger with ornate rims is parked behind me. It’s an unwelcome sight. Jason Cloud. I loathe his kind--a dealer of weed, meth, heroin, fentanyl, Oxys, Lortabs, Valium, gabapentin, and whatever else people will buy to wake themselves up or put themselves to sleep. He’s not the one who sold my mama the shit that killed her. But it was someone like him. Someone who will end lives for a purple Dodge Challenger with rims.
Cloud stands at the passenger window of my truck, talking with Delaney, pausing every couple of seconds to send a plume of vape smoke skyward. He’s wearing an oversized white T-shirt, a thick gold chain, huge black shorts that go past his knees, and Nike sandals with socks pulled up almost to his knees. His bleached-blond hair is in cornrows, and his mouth glitters with a gold grille.
He only has a few years on me, but looks far older. His eyes are the shade of weapon gray that someone would pick out for themselves if God didn’t have rattlesnake yellow in stock. No compassion or intelligence in them. Only cunning--and sizing you up for cracks. Underneath each eye is a crude teardrop tattoo the color of wash-faded denim. I’ve heard those mean you’ve killed someone.
I walk faster, anger scuttling up my throat from my chest.
“What don’t you know, girl?” Cloud says to Delaney as I enter earshot of their conversation. “Ain’t nothing to know.”
Delaney stares forward, then turns and catches my eye. She looks afraid and relieved. Help me, her eyes say.
Cloud sees me approach and gives me a curt backward nod. “ ’Sup, mane.”
I return the terse nod. “Everything good?”
Cloud pulls a drag off his dragon vape pen. The cords of his neck ripple underneath a tattoo of the face of Jared Leto’s Joker character from Suicide Squad. He releases a gout of white, cherry-scented vapor in my direction. “We real good. Just having a private conversation.”
“We gotta go,” Delaney says, her voice taut.
“Won’t take but a minute,” Cloud drawls. His mouth smirks. His eyes don’t follow.
“We’re already late,” I say in a low voice.
Cloud sidles toward me and spits. I can smell him as he nears--expensive cologne, weed, cherry vape smoke, and something stale and sour. “We’re talking now?”
I try to slip past him to get in my truck. He steps to cut me off, and I almost run smack into him. “Scuse me,” I mutter. “I gotta--”
“You her daddy?” His tone is equal parts mocking and menace.
“Hmm? Boyfriend? Y’all smashin’?” He gives me a death’s-head grin with his grille and humps the air a couple of times.
“Man, I don’t want no trouble.”
“Naw?” Cloud gets in my face, staring me down. “What’s your name, mane?” He’s near enough I can feel the sweat evaporating from his skin.
“Cash,” I say, avoiding his eyes.
Cloud snickers. It sounds like a call from a buzzard to come feast on a carcass. “Cash. Sheeeit.” He lifts his heavy gold chain with both thumbs and lets it drop back down on his chest with a muted thud. “It’s me should be named Cash. Look like the only cash you got is your name, bitch.”
Copyright © 2021 by Jeff Zentner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.