Far From Here
by Aleyna Rentz
It was getting pretty late when the three of us were walking back to my car from the colonial cemetery. We’d lived this Saturday night countless times: the hour-long drive to the nearest city, Hank Williams playing on my radio because I couldn’t get the cassette tape out; eating double cheeseburgers and milkshakes at Five Guys; browsing local shops and running our hands over items we couldn’t afford and didn’t really want; wandering aimlessly until our feet systematically carried us to the graveyard, a national landmark presumably occupied by ghosts we were never lucky enough to see. Our Saturday nights were invariably composed of these disjointed fractions of time, floating from one public place to another, as if waiting for some train that never came. We were like ghosts ourselves, lingering around the city but never coming fully in contact with it, those hushed conversations in coffee shops and laughing crowds in tour buses, until the sky turned grim and the moon yellow and we were forced to concede that another Saturday had ended.
“Graveyards,” Josephine said as the three of us exited through the gate and started down the sidewalk toward the parking garage. “They’re just neighborhoods for the dead.”
We were used to this kind of pretense from Josephine, who’d only made two Bs in her life—tenth grade gym and AP biology, but only because she’d been out with strep throat for a week—and I might’ve teased her had I not felt sorry for her. Coming to the cemetery was always her idea; she was the type of person who found immense pleasure in the adrenaline rush that comes with being scared and had worked herself into a state where surreptitiously tapping her on the shoulder was enough to make her scream. I could tell by the way she walked, her hands stuffed deep into the pockets of a blue hoodie patterned with cartoonish clouds I bought for her at the Salvation Army (because Josephine was the kind of person that’s always cold, but inexplicably leaves her jacket at home), that she was working through some acute disappointment.
“Are you going to smoke that?” she asked Red—Richard Elias Dunham, who’d gone by Red since kindergarten—who was fiddling nervously with a cigarette he’d plucked from his father’s coat pocket earlier that afternoon in an act of larceny spurred by boredom alone. He’d been fidgeting with it all evening, rolling it between his fingers. I’d joked in the cemetery that since we didn’t have any candles for summoning purposes, maybe a cigarette would do the trick—hell, I’d said, maybe the ghosts would like that better, could use a smoke. Red had merely looked at me, his face suggesting I’d just said something irredeemably stupid, the same way he was looking at Josephine now.
“No,” he said finally, and passed it to her.
She shooed his hand away. “I don’t want it. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to smoke it.”
Red laughed at this in a nasty way, momentarily driven by the idea that it might be cool for him to laugh at this, but cut himself short. He put the cigarette back in his pocket.
“I’m doing my old man a favor, anyway. They found a spot on his lung.”
This was how Red broke bad news. He didn’t see any reason to dramatize the inevitable. But Josephine did, and she took her hands out of her pocket to cover her mouth, even though it was too dark for Red to fully appreciate this gesture of sympathy.
“I’m sorry, man,” I said, though I was hardly surprised. Back in first or second grade, the first time I spent the night at his house, I noticed even then that an incessant trail of smoke followed his dad wherever he went. From what I understood, he smoked three packs a day.
“What does that mean, anyway?” Josephine asked, her voice quavering. “What kind of spot?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just a spot.”
We walked on in silence for a little while. I started thinking back to last month’s playoff game, the first our team had been to in twenty years, which we’d gotten to almost solely because of Red, the best quarterback the Blue Devils had seen in years. That was the same night Tyler Jones, a snare player on drumline Red and I liked to drink with in the Winn-Dixie parking lot sometimes, let me take a drag off one of his Camels under the bleachers. I didn’t like smoking much, but he’d offered me the cigarette and it seemed like the thing to do. Josephine, who heartily disapproved of any recreational substances, was furious with me the next day.
“You know what? I could barely sleep last night ’cause I was so worried some smoke got trapped in your lungs and suffocated you while you were sleeping,” she told me.
“You’re entitled to think that, but when your lungs turn black and shrivel up, be sure to let me know so I can call you up to say I told you so.”
“Where are you gonna be?”
“I don’t know.” She flicked a piece of dirt out from under her fingernail. “Oval Office. A villa in Paris. Far from here, I can tell you that much.”
I’d heard from various sources that love was often accompanied by insanity, but I couldn’t detect any latent feelings of romance in Josephine’s admonition. This fact, I realized with a start, disappointed me, and suddenly, I was confronted with a truth that had probably laid dormant, kept quiet by embarrassment, for years: I liked Josephine. With this realization came a newfound excitement for our school’s annual Christmas dance, which we’d attended last weekend as a couple for her mother’s sake, who just wanted photographs of her daughter at a dance with a boy. They only played one slow number, a twangy country song Josephine said made her want to puke, but she indulged me a dance anyways. I led her in slow circles around the gymnasium while she giggled in my ear.
Over and over, she told me, “You’re a terrible dancer.” I held on to the thin hope that she found my clumsiness endearing, but my optimism vanished after she side-hugged me goodnight.
I knew we were close to the street I’d parked on when we passed by a statue we’d seen a thousand times. Everyone’s mother in the surrounding towns had a picture of her child standing next to it, imitating its pose: a little girl cast in bronze stood with her head thrust backward, her tongue sticking out to catch stray raindrops. Josephine methodically patted her head right between her rigid pigtails. She said she’d always felt sorry for the statue, standing outside with her tongue out and no rain falling.
“We oughta just go home,” I said finally. “There’s not anything else to do.”
“Hmmm.” Josephine looked around, and I saw a glint of determination in her eyes, as if she were trying to will some new amusement to materialize out of the darkened storefronts. The fire station, wedged between a darkened coffee shop and a laundromat, loomed ahead of us. In its giant doorframe was a fireman, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
“I wonder if they still use the poles,” Josephine said.
“Probably not,” I said, an assumption made on the thought that it might be fun to contradict Josephine, who always had to be right. She was ranked eleventh in our graduating class, just on the periphery of achievement, which didn’t mean much to anyone except Josephine. To her it meant a great deal. Her parents told her if she wanted a college education she could pay for it herself, but Josephine had other plans—before moving into the White House or her Parisian villa, she was going to use her 3.87 GPA to get into the Peace Corps and help build schools in Uganda for underprivileged girls. It was always just the girls, and always just Uganda, never anybody or anywhere else. Sometimes I liked to make fun of her, saying it was the only country in Africa she could name.
She put her hands on her hips. “Why wouldn’t they?”
“They aren’t practical,” I said, feeling my way through an argument. “They could just run down the stairs. Slide down the handrail.”
“It is not.”
“All right then. I’ll just go ask him myself.”
Red kicked some piece of debris lying on the ground—I remember it being either a crushed beer can or a French fry carton—and said something unintelligible. I could see the conversation about his father’s mysterious spot had put him in one of his moods, in which he’d get quiet and lightly kick whatever was around him, or, in lieu of things to kick, take gentle aim at the air with his foot.
“Don’t bother him,” I said, but Josephine was already making her way toward the fireman, her sudden surge of confidence absurd in light of her secondhand cloud hoodie.
I started after her, but noticed Red lingering behind. “You coming?”
He shook his head. “I’ll just wait right here.”
“It’s going to be all right.”
“I’m just worried about what this means.” He paused. “About Clemson. The football scholarship. There’s nobody else to take care of him. I’m all he’s got. Can’t just leave him here alone and sick … ” Our eyes met, and he immediately looked down at his shoelaces.
“Just don’t think about it right now. Come on.”
“I said I’m staying out here.”
“You sure?” He refused to answer, which I took as an affirmative. “We’ll be back in a sec.”
As I caught up to Josephine, I heard her explaining to the fireman, “… So we were wondering if you still actually used them or not.”
The fireman, I noticed immediately, had a good three inches on me, and I was the tallest boy on our track team. He looked down at us with vague amusement and for a moment I thought he would burst into laughter until he finally said, “‘Course we still use ’em.”
“That’s what I figured. Chris over here said you could just run down the stairs.”
His smile vanished immediately and he regarded me with a stern face.
“Son, do you know how long it takes for a fire to spread from one room to another?”
I didn’t. “No, sir.”
“Seconds, that’s how long. Fire safety isn’t a joke. Ought to be ashamed.”
He suddenly broke into a grin. “I’m just teasing you.”
“Oh.” I gave a cursory laugh.
He made me cringe by nudging Josephine as though they were old friends. “Got him good, didn’t I?”
“Sure did,” she said happily. She looked around the fire station, seeming genuinely enchanted by the place. “We went on a field trip to our local fire station in the second grade—it was second grade, right, Chris?”
Annoyed with my inability to recall this information, I shrugged.
“But it was just this little wooden building. A volunteer station. This is so much more impressive.” Her eyes fell on a gleaming red fire truck with longing. “We don’t have anything, where we’re from.”
“It’s not that bad,” I protested.
“Maybe not for you,” she said, her tone veering into condescension, “but for some of us, it’s absolute hell.”
The fireman appealed to her with sympathetic eyes—big blue ones, I noticed with a twinge of jealousy. “That bad, huh?”
The three of us had grown up in a nearby town called Wahooppee, South Carolina, a forgotten stretch of lowcountry whose name suggested much more excitement than the town actually possessed. Boys there progressed from little leaguers to football players to shrimpers, while the girls went from nursing baby dolls to raising the real things with alarming speed. While Josephine and Red both talked endlessly of leaving, I couldn’t imagine abandoning the town where I’d been raised. I was positioned to join my father in the shrimping business right after graduation, a prospect I’d looked forward to immensely since the day he promised me my own boat. I could easily picture it tied to our wooden dock. This was usually as far into the future as I could see, but lately my visions had expanded to include a small cottage with a wicker front porch swing and lots of large windows. Sometimes I was surprised and embarrassed to find Josephine there, too, nestled in an armchair with a book.
“I’m awful sorry,” the fireman said. “Tell you what, it’s a slow night here, so I might as well show y’all the pole.” We followed him through the small space between two fire trucks to the pole in the back of the station. “Here it is. Not much to it. Just a pole.”
“Not just a pole,” Josephine corrected him. “This thing helps save people’s lives.”
He shrugged. “Not really. Half the calls we get aren’t for anything real serious. Kid stuck in a tree, drunk college kids climbing up the water tower, stuff like that.”
“But you’re still helping people, and that counts for something.”
“Huh.” He smiled. “S’pose that’s one way of looking at it.”
The way he was beaming at Josephine, so overjoyed by her optimism, made me feel slightly nauseous. I noticed the padding around the base of the pole and asked, almost too maliciously, “Anyone ever fall off of it?”
With sudden severity, the man answered, “Actually, yes. Fella who used to work here several years ago—this was before I started—brought his kids to see the place once and decided to let his son try out the pole. A clear violation of policy. Didn’t end well.”
Josephine’s hands went to her mouth for the second time that night, the drama of this motion registering fully under the stations fluorescent lights.
“Broke several ribs and his collarbone,” he continued. “Near ’bout died.”
“Oh my goodness.”
“That’s terrible,” I mumbled.
“People get real banged up on these things. That’s partly how come they’re on their way out. Probably do more harm than good, honestly.”
I smirked at Josephine and said, “Guess I was right after all.” She just glared at me, letting me know my teasing was evidently not welcome during this solemn moment. Feeling profoundly stupid, I looked across the street at Red’s faraway figure for solidarity. He was half-heartedly kicking at nothing.
“Who’s your friend out there?”
“Red,” she told him.
“Funny name. He okay, or what?”
“Yeah,” I said quickly, “just shy.”
“So what’s the deal with you two? High school students?”
“Seniors.” I jerked a thumb at Josephine. “She’s ranked eleventh in our class.”
I hadn’t meant anything by this comment, but Josephine grew defensive. “I’m going to Uganda when I graduate.”
“Uganda?” He drew back. “What’re you going to Uganda for?”
“The Peace Corps. I’m gonna build schools for girls.”
The subject of Uganda suddenly seemed unbearable to me, for it was all I’d heard about for weeks—new schools, mosquito nets, little girls clamoring into Josephine’s lap and kissing her cheeks and telling her thank you in Swahili—and I couldn’t help but cut in. “You don’t know that for sure. They almost never let people in straight out of high school.”
Josephine stared at me for a few seconds with a strained expression indicating she might spontaneously combust at any minute. Instead, she exhaled deeply, picking at the frayed drawstring on her hoodie with subdued violence. “That may be true, but I’ve got good grades and did mission work with my church up in Virginia once, so I like to think I’ll be an exception to the rule.”
“Huh,” the fireman said, scratching his chin. “I guess if you don’t get in, there’s always college.”
“I’m sending off my application Monday morning.”
This was the first I’d heard of any application. I was stunned—Josephine’s ramblings about Uganda had seemed grounded in fantasy, untethered to anything concrete, and yet there’s been an application this whole time.
“I’m sure they’d be lucky to have you.”
The color returned to Josephine’s cheeks. “Thanks. I just want to help people, and like, change the world, you know?”
“That’s why I got into this business myself.” He gestured to the quiet fire station.
“It’s getting late,” I found myself saying, an edge creeping into my voice. “We’re probably keeping you.”
“Oh, nobody’s keeping me. Soon as you young folks leave, I’ll probably just read that book over there—” he swung a lazy hand toward a paperback sitting on a shelf—”till I fall asleep. It’s a pretty good one, though. Y’all ever heard of Dean Koontz?”
Had I allowed Josephine to get sucked into a conversation regarding books, even mass market paperbacks, we would’ve been there all night. “We really gotta get going, anyways,” I insisted. “We live in Wahooppee. That’s like an hour from here.”
His face clouded. “Sure, sure. Those country roads are tough to navigate at night. Don’t want your folks worrying about you.” Then he smiled at us, showing us a row of straight white teeth that suggested he was a man who took dental hygiene seriously. Long nights at the fire station probably gave him extra time to floss, I thought, not without malice. “Thanks for the company. It’s always appreciated.” He held out his hand and Josephine took it warmly.
“Thank you,” she said, and for a moment I swore I saw tears in her eyes. “It’s always so nice to just, like, whenever you—” but whatever she meant, she could not articulate it, and she settled for another whispered “thank you” before allowing us to finally leave.
“Be careful over there in Uganda,” he called after us.
As we walked back across the street, she dug her hands in her hoodie pockets and lowered her head, making a show of ignoring me.
“I’m sorry, but it was getting pretty late.”
She surged ahead, purposefully knocking into me with her elbow. Red was waiting for us by the statue, rolling the cigarette between his fingers. When he saw us approaching, he stopped.
“Sorry we made you wait so long,” I said. He shrugged. “Guess we can go home now. Y’all ready?”
Neither of them answered me. The area around us had long emptied out and all I could see was the cemetery fence’s dark outline and a flickering neon sign down the road. Everyone had either gone home for the night or taken refuge in a bar. We stood there in silence until Red threw down the cigarette.
“I hate this damn statue,” he bellowed, his voice carrying down the deserted street. Without meditation, he kicked at it blindly, then howled, hobbling backwards on one foot. “Fuck.”
We let him have his moment, murmuring in agony, knowing he didn’t want our sympathy. After letting him cool down for a few minutes, Josephine knelt down and took his hand.
“Come on. We gotta get going. Chris here wants to get home.”
With excess care, she helped Red to his feet, and we made our slow ascent down the sidewalk. Red was limping a little, an affectation I thought came more from self-pity than actual pain. After a while, he said, “So, what was the verdict?”
“The verdict on what?”
“The poles.” He was making a meager attempt at affability, trying to prove he was okay. “Do they still use ’em?”
I looked to Josephine, afraid whatever I might say would offend her, but she wasn’t there. I turned around and saw her silhouette pressed against the fence, studying the cemetery one last time for some indication of life, or death—a white orb, a face materializing out of nothingness, anything at all—before we went home.
“Well?” Red asked.
“Yeah,” I said at last. “They still do.”
Aleyna Rentz is currently enrolled in Georgia Southern University’s Honors Program, where she’s pursuing an English/Writing double major. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been featured in publications including Black Fox Literary, 30 North, the Collapsar and Deep South Magazine. She is also an editor at Moonglasses Magazine and can be found on Twitter at @aleyna_rentz. Read her piece “Salinger’s Southern Year” here and her short story “A Mean Heart” here.