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Summer/Fall 2019

A Real Man

 

by David Joseph 

 

Travis was the first one I knew to get a fake ID. He looked old, anyway, and now he was old. At least on paper. He was also from California, because the California ID was easy to duplicate back then, and nobody in the South had ever seen one before. 

When he first got it made, I looked at the ID carefully. It was his photograph, and the laminate was better than average. There were no rough edges around the outside, and this was in the days before holograms complicated things. Sure, it was possible that someone might have wondered if it was a fake, but store owners in South Carolina had nothing to compare it to. There weren’t a lot of Californians in South Carolina, to begin with, and so Travis didn’t have much trouble using the ID effectively. 

Travis was one year older than me. He was taller than most, that kid who had his growth spurt earlier than the rest of us. Perhaps he was older than we thought. He moved to our small town when he was fifteen, and some people wondered if he had been held back in school. Either way, his face was more hardened. It wore the pain of experience, and it sprouted out from the stubble of his goatee and laced his animal eyes that told us Travis knew what it meant to be savage in a way that we did not.

Even so, Travis was cool, impossibly cool, and I was drawn to him. It didn’t matter that I was a good kid, and it was of little consequence that I knew he looked like he ran with a tougher crowd. I knew better, but Travis had a magnetism that was compelling. Furthermore, I didn’t have many friends. I was shy, like many teenagers, and kids my age were merciless. They never missed a chance to remind me that I was a virgin or that I had never even kissed a girl. They made fun of me and it hurt. It didn’t hurt because I longed to be like them. I just longed to be normal, or at least not teased for being different. And Travis never teased me. Not once.

The first day I met him, he said, “Hey, I’m Travis,” before adding, “don’t pay any attention to them. They’re idiots.”

Even though Travis didn’t hang with the popular crowd, he had their respect. This was because he struck a healthy amount of fear in them. Everything about him made people uncomfortable. It oozed from his giant, gold belt buckle to his leather boots. When his eyes narrowed someone in their gaze, kids were genuinely afraid—not of being assaulted with words but of something worse, something unpredictable. I don’t like to use the word crazy, but Travis possessed an internal wildness, and the kids who teased me were never going to mess with Travis. From the day he came to our school, they stopped messing with me. That was more than anyone else had ever done for me, and when Travis called to me after school and said, “Let’s go,” I went.

It was almost summer, and the day was impossibly hot. The air in South Carolina can be stifling, and on that afternoon you could have cut it with a knife. I began perspiring the moment I walked out of the brick building and stepped into the moist air. Travis seemed almost impervious to sweat, even in jeans, and he was waiting outside in front of the school. Travis drove an old Chevy pickup. It had a manual transmission, and there was a touch of rust coming through the body, but the engine was strong. It had been rebuilt by Travis and his uncle, and it started up easily as we pulled away from the school.

We rolled the windows down and drove just past the county line. We lived in a town that was hardly modern, but it had a degree of order. It was, at the very least, civilized, and people were relatively educated, too, since it had a University. When you got outside of town, however, things slowly began to change. The grass grew taller, buildings were farther apart, and there was an unspoken feeling that, out there, law and order was placed in the hands of the people. If the stereotype of a “country boy” was born anywhere, it might as well have been there.

We pulled into the driveway of a convenience store and parked over the cracked cement. Travis went inside and grabbed a case of beer. I grabbed a soda, and we placed the beverages on the counter. The man at the cash register looked at Travis a bit suspiciously and inquired, “You twenty-one, boy?”

“Yes, sir,” said Travis.

“Let me see some ID, please,” said the man behind the counter. He didn’t say it skeptically so much as to keep Travis honest. After all, Travis’ face looked every bit of twenty-one, even if his body still looked like that of a long, wiry teen.

“Here you go, sir,” said Travis, while the man eyed the license. It looked as if he had never seen one from California before. Travis sensed this. and interacted smartly. “Just moved back here from California with my mom. I was born here, and it’s good to be back in the South.” The man behind the counter seemed to like Travis’ comment. He came across like a true Southerner, a young good 'ole boy in many ways, and the man behind the counter was convinced, even if he added, “Providing alcohol to a minor is illegal,” as he peered in my direction while I held my Pepsi. 

“Of course, sir,” said Travis. “We are just having a few people over, and my mom and my uncle will be there. Just a small gathering. We’ll keep an eye on my cousin, here.”

I couldn’t lie to anyone. I would have started sweating, and I would have crumbled instantly. And I marveled at how cool Travis was. He was so poised that it almost didn’t seem like a lie. It was as if in that small window of time since we’d left the school, we'd become other people.

We hopped back in the car and drove out to the lake. The lake was something I knew very little about. It had a mythical quality to it, and it possessed a forbidden element that had an allure for any teenager. I heard stories about grifters, girls, and even people who never returned from a weekend at the lake, but I had never been there--save for the time I went with my parents when I was a little kid, and that didn’t count.

Travis turned off the main road. “Almost there,” he said. The surface of the road now changed to gravel, and there were tall trees on both sides. It had been a wet spring, and the whole area was very green. Driving away from the main road, it nearly felt like we could be swallowed whole. But it was unquestionably beautiful there.

Travis passed the main campground and picnic area and drove around to the other side of the lake. He turned down another road that wasn’t much more than a wide trail and steered his old pickup between the narrow trees like he had done this before. There was a small, open patch to pull off to the side, almost like a natural parking space formed over time by vehicles that had parked there in the past. Travis turned the wheel to the right, squeezed in between tree trunks, and threw the car into park. We hopped out of the truck, grabbed our backpacks, and I followed Travis down a trail that led away from the lake.

We hiked for about ten minutes until we could hear running water. Then we stepped off the trail and cut down to the river bed, where there was a nice creek with a secluded swimming hole. The air was still hot and muggy, and a swim in the afternoon heat sounded good. Two girls were sitting on a towel in the sun atop a huge rock along the side of the creek. When they heard us, they turned their heads, and one of the girls nodded to Travis as if she knew him.

“Hey, Janie,” Travis called out to her.

“Travis,” she said in an unsurprised way that let me know they had planned to meet us at this spot. “You're late.”

“Traffic” Travis deadpanned, which was as close to a joke as he could muster.

Janie was tall and lean, and tan, with shoulder-length brown hair that she wore beneath a baseball cap that was nearly pulled down over her eyes. She wore cut-off jeans that revealed all they could. Her long, white legs seemed to go on for miles, and she wasn’t wearing shoes. She had a wide mouth with full lips, and her breasts showed through from beneath her Allman Brothers tank top.

We walked over to them, and Travis leaned in and gave Janie a kiss in a way that showed neither embarrassment nor overzealousness—confidence and poise I had only seen before in the movies.

“I’m Kyle” I interjected awkwardly into the silence that hung in the air after their kiss.

“Hey Kyle,” said Janie. “I’m Janie, and this is my cousin Talia.”

Talia smiled but didn’t say a word. She didn’t possess any of the sheer confidence that Janie exhibited, but her smile was welcoming. Like Janie, she wore cut-off shorts, but they weren’t cut nearly as low and looked as if they might have been turned into shorts just recently. She had a white summer blouse with buttons that ran straight down the center. Her hair was sandy brown, bone straight, and she wore it pulled back in a ponytail.

Travis grabbed Janie’s hand and said, “Come on!” and they both got up from the large rock and headed towards the water hole. I sat down next to Talia and said nothing as we watched Travis and Janie take off their clothes and plunge themselves into the water unabashedly. Janie jumped on Travis’ back and reached her arms around his neck while he swam away from us. Now at the far end of the swimming hole, we saw Janie kiss the back of Travis’ neck and swing her body around to embrace him face to face.

“Want to take a walk?” I said to Talia.

“Sure. Okay,” said Talia. She sounded, not so much cautious as slightly indifferent. After all, we had barely met. Still, there was a keen sense that Travis and Janie had arranged this afternoon, and I think we both knew that we were safe with one another. I had never so much as kissed a girl, and I got the sense that Talia’s experience with boys was comparable.

Talia didn’t use her body to attract attention in the way that Janie did. She came across like a girl who doubted her own beauty despite the fact that it was obvious. As for me, I was still a bit awkward and gangly and was just emerging from a swath of unattractive pimples that had adorned my face for a couple of years. I had all but given up on getting girls to look in my direction and figured I would have to wait until college to get a fresh start.

We walked down the trail for quite some time without saying a word when Talia grabbed my hand. She still didn’t say anything, and we kept on walking. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I felt her hand squeeze mine, and I squeezed hers with the same pressure. She bent her chin and laughed and I could see her smile. I was proving myself a willing, if unassuming, participant. It wasn’t dark yet, but the sun was beginning to go down, and the trees around us had a golden tinge as the evening light moved in. There was nobody around, and we felt like we had the woods to ourselves. Talia leaned her shoulder into mine, drawing her head closer, and whispered, “Kyle, do you want to kiss me?

Of course, I did, but I couldn’t find the words, and so I just stammered “yes” as Talia giggled sweetly. She pulled my hand gently and led me off the trail where she stood with her back to a big tree, shielding us from the view of the path even though nobody was on it. I leaned toward her slowly, craning my neck, and our noses bumped before I moved to the side and searched for her mouth with mine. Her lips sought mine out, and we fumbled around sweetly against the tree, practicing with one another tenderly, almost lovingly, in an attempt to understand what it meant to kiss and be kissed. We made a few awkward noises of delight, but only because we thought we were supposed to.

Talia placed her hands on my chest and I stepped back and said, “Is everything alright?” when she said “Would you like to touch me? I can tell you aren’t like other boys, and I’d like it if you touched me.”

Talia removed the tie from her ponytail and shook out her hair. Then, she unbuttoned her blouse slowly, with the falling sun fixed upon her soft, white skin. I stood motionless, out of both respect and fear. Talia grabbed my hand again, this time placing it on her exposed flesh. She let me explore her torso, guiding my hands across her skin. I kissed her more convincingly than I had the first time, and she pulled my body tightly against hers, so I could feel the warmth of her naked breasts. Almost apologetically, she whispered, “It’s starting to get late Kyle. We should probably go back.”

“Yes, of course. You’re right” I said, stepping back while she began to button her blouse back up. She didn’t seem shy anymore, and she even seemed to smile, taking her sweet time, so that I could enjoy watching her fasten each button until her white skin was no longer visible.

I wasn’t much of a talker, but I did manage to say, “You are very beautiful,” which seemed like a good choice based upon her reaction.

We walked quicker on the way back in an attempt to make it to the swimming hole before it got dark. When we got there, Travis and Janie were sitting on a blanket. They were all dried off and their clothes were on. “You made it,” said Travis. “We need to drive back around to the campground, now, on the other side of the lake.”

I hopped in the truck with Travis and Talia went with Janie as we headed back to pitch our tents, start a fire, and roast hot dogs. Travis got the wood positioned, and the fire was roaring in no time. He grabbed the beers from his truck, and we sat around the fire, eating and drinking beer, as the sunset and visions of the past few hours swirled through my head. For the first time in my life, I almost felt like a man, a real man.

It didn’t take many beers for me to pass out, and I awoke, with Talia’s head resting on my chest, to the sound of a woman’s cries for help. There was another tent not far from ours, and the cries seemed to be coming from that direction.

Travis leaped up wearing only his jeans. “Stay Here,” he said and, tossed me the keys to his truck, in case we might have to get out of there quickly. He stepped into his boots without bothering to wear a shirt. He ran over to the other tent and, unzipped it. We heard a voice say, “Get the fuck outta here, kid. This is none of your fucking business.”

I thought about what must be happening in that tent. The man who shouted must have turned his back on Travis, giving Travis a clear view of the bruises covering the woman’s face, the fear in her eyes. It was at that moment that we saw what we somehow already knew Travis was capable of.

By way of shadows in the tent, we could see Travis reach in with both hands, grab the man from behind, and hurl him out of the tent and onto the dirt of the campground, while groans and growls escaped from the man’s body. Travis then jumped on top of him. The man was strong in his own right, but Travis began punching him in the face with both hands, over and over and over. The man was trying to put up a fight, but he could do little more than gasp for air, like someone drowning in the ocean.

He was no match for Travis.

We sat there and watched transfixed as Travis unleashed his fists, one after the other, his knuckles colliding with the man’s face amidst the screams and cries until they all stopped. The man’s life stopped. In many ways, it had seemed like the world had stopped., But during those unmerciful minutes when Travis let his fury rain down on the man, it looked like Travis was never going to stop. He couldn’t stop. His rage was the product of pure instinct and it could not stop until one man was dead and the other forever defined by this event. 

Travis got off the man’s body, made sure the woman was alright, then covered the body with the blanket he and Janie had been sitting on at the water hole. The woman put her clothes on, shaking, and Travis told her to stay with us until he got back. He drove the man’s car, and when he returned he was sitting in the back seat of a police car, looking every bit as calm as the first time I had seen him. The policeman got out of the car and walked over to us to determine what happened. He said Travis had driven to the police station and turned himself in. We gave our accounts of the story, how we just sat there paralyzed as Travis came to the aid of this woman and then beat the man savagely, unrelentingly, to a pulp.

The policeman thanked us and walked back to the car where Travis was still sitting in the back seat. Another policeman had arrived, and he spoke to the woman. She then got into his car, and they drove off, presumably to the police station, or maybe to the hospital. The man‘s inert body was loaded into an ambulance, which also drove off, though without any sirens or lights.

Janie stood up and said, “Talia, let’s go.” Talia hesitated, but she stood up and followed her cousin. I didn’t know if I should call out to her, but she managed to look back at me. She was looking at me through the same eyes that had encouraged me to watch her get dressed, a look that said we were both somehow older, more experienced than when the day began.

I was alone next to the fire, which was merely smoldering now, but I could see Travis, still in the back of the police car. Although I had grown closer to becoming a man that afternoon, I would never be a man like him. I could never be a man like him. He had something inside him that came from a place I’d never know. He knew just what he had to do to save that woman, and his response was something more primal, more unapologetically human. I think Travis knew that. I think he had always known that. 

As the police car pulled out of the lot, Travis turned his head to look at me, wholly unaffected, just like he had been the first day I saw him at school. He still possessed the composure I had witnessed earlier that afternoon when he leaned over and kissed Janie, and the icy calm in his eyes illustrated none of the fear that might be associated with a young man who was headed to jail for a long time. He just stared with that look that said everything would be okay.

It was then that I remembered I still had the keys to Travis’ Chevy pickup. I walked over to the truck, opened the door, and slid into the driver’s seat. I sat up straight behind the wheel and stared out the window past the flashing lights of the police car and into the night sky. I had kissed Talia, and I had watched a man die.  I had fallen asleep under the stars, and I had seen Travis nobly defend a woman’s honor with no thought of the consequences. I took one look in the rearview mirror, turned the engine over, and eased her onto the gravel road.

 

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