Ground Fog

By Roger Mensink

My name is Brittany Benjamin, and life is raining gummy bears (my favorite sweets), not only because I am blessed—my parents are both college professors, both tenured; I grew up in a house of overcrowded bookshelves and walls hung with actual art made by actual artists (most of them art students), a house filled with discussions and dinner parties, Scrabble, the New York Times and lazy Sundays—but also because I’ve taken drugs and because my future is secure. This morning I am walking on King’s Highway, which is the main road that connects the town and college with the neighborhood where I live—no more than four or five streets and a couple of cul-de-sacs tucked in among the pines behind a sign that designates it as a place called Spirit Ridge. It’s

What was the point of that visit, I wonder now. When I am ill, or when I am dying, I’m pretty sure I don’t want anyone to visit me.
still dark, stars are in the sky, but there is no moon, or if there is I can’t see it. It’s all so marvelously familiar. Just now I walked past St. Joseph’s, the small, neat brick hospital where I was born. I know its lobby well. I was taken there when I shattered my collarbone on the ski hill nearby. I was taken there when a foolish boy threw a rock into the place where we were hiding and opened my chin. My best friend’s father was taken there when he had a stroke. I remember our visit. He was lying on a hospital bed, covered by a thin hospital blanket. He was confused. At one point he threw off the blanket, and underneath it his gown was displaced so that we all caught a glimpse of his penis. Quickly, my friend’s mother covered him up. What was the point of that visit, I wonder now. When I am ill, or when I am dying, I’m pretty sure I don’t want anyone to visit me. Last night I was dropped off at Emmett Cooper’s house while there was still daylight. Sleepover. A big party. Mr. and Mrs. Cooper had promised to be home, so I guess that from my parents’ perspective there was nothing to worry about. The thing is, the Coopers’ house is so big, it’s a mansion, that we were able to take over one wing, and the Coopers slept somewhere far away in another wing, so that it didn’t matter that they were home. It was like we had the place to ourselves. No sleeping bag, of course. I wonder, did my parents think there was going to be a bed made for me? They dropped me off and told me to call if I needed to be picked up next morning. Not even a toothbrush. And then they’re shocked, shocked, when a year later the local TV station airs a special report on drug use among youth in small-town America. Almost everyone at the party did a line of meth, maybe two. That’s how we stayed up and partied. Now I’m walking home after a night that for me began after Jeremy tried to buttfuck me. I said no. He pretended not to hear. I said no again, and he got mad. “What do you mean,” he said. “You’ve never even tried it.” “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Don’t want to.” He got frustrated, tried to manhandle me, and when I squirmed out from under him, because I’d had enough, my elbow swung around and hit him in the face. It was a weird room we were in, some kind of lounge, made for watching TV. Now there was blood on the couch, and Jeremy had gone totally inert. He held his nose between two fingers with his head tilted back. I put my pants back on, took my shoes in one hand and headed downstairs. Where’s Emmett, I wanted to know. It took a little doing, some sleuthing, but eventually I learned he was in another little room, next to the kitchen. I opened the door a bit and peeked in. Here beat the warm privileged heart of the party, and of course I very much wanted to be part of it. Emmett and his crew sat arranged in a circle on the carpet, in the middle of the room, the lights turned low. There was flamboyant Asher, and there was Asher’s BFF, Paige, and Aubrey, a near celebrity whose boyfriend was currently touring with a famous indie rock band, and there were a few others as well. All of them, crème de la crème. It was Emmett’s birthday, hence the party. “Happy birthday,” I said as I sat myself delicately down, not completely sure yet if I was welcome. “Oh, thank you. That means a lot,” Emmett answered. He put a throw pillow in my lap. “What have you been doing?” he asked. I said, “Nothing!” Giggles from the circle. I too laughed, in agreement, but demurely. Someone lit a joint and passed it along. We each exhaled up to the ceiling and sat under a cloud of smoke, and talked and talked and talked. Time spaced out. Asher wore these black leather gloves, even though it was summer. I’m not sure why. I think it was so that he wouldn’t pick at himself. Asher had gone to rehab. His parents had taken him away for a while, but now he was back. Strange mysterious Asher, doing exactly what he shouldn’t be doing—right here, right now. He pointed at me, two gloved fingers held together. “You were accepted to Brown.” There was a pause. I nodded yes. “Oh, my gosh!” He kneed his way over and gave me a one-armed hug and a kiss on the neck. “Congratulations!” To which I wanted to say, “Thanks. That means a lot,” but naturally I didn’t. I sensed a wave of approval wash over me. Of course, this was massive acceptance from people I really admired. Hours had gone by, and at some point I couldn’t even stand it any more. To preserve the perfection of the thing I had to get up and go. There was a little bit of a fuss at first, protestations, which I’ll forever hold next to my heart, then more hugs, Emmett first. And as I quietly closed the door behind me, I heard Asher cry out, “Brittany, don’t go!” Frosting on the cake. Without bothering to look at anyone else in the house, I wobbled through the music and the smoky dimness toward the front door. Once outside, the air hit me like a wet slap. I drew a deep breath. It would take me an hour to hoof it home, but I didn’t mind. Though it was dark, I set off feeling ebullient, and I didn’t see anyone. That is, not until I got to the public swimming pool in town, a typical community building, indistinguishable from the hospital really. Outside the building, next to its main entrance doors, sat a Coke machine. I suddenly wanted a Coke, so I walked from the road to the machine and dug into my bag for some quarters. I had more than enough, and I was just having my first sip, which tasted really good, considering that I hadn’t eaten all night, when a car stopped and a boy leaned out the window and told me to come over. Well, maybe not a boy, he was slightly older, but not by much. A college student. There was someone in the seat next to him, I could tell. I walked to the car, I was not even slightly afraid, and the first thing I heard was that the boy had a French accent. “Would you like to look at my friend,” he asked. A gleam of sweat had gathered on his upper lip. He tried to smile but couldn’t quite pull it off. “But no touching!” he added.
I wave. Bye, bye, he waves back. Life is so damn weird.
I leaned down slightly. A shadowy figure. Then my eyes adjusted. The other kid had his pants down around his ankles, and he had an erection, which he kind of waved at me, but without much conviction. “Oh, no thanks,” I said. I straightened, and I heard the boy with the erection say something like, “Come on Luc, let’s go.” I’m not kidding, Luc. It seems this was Luc’s idea more than it was the boy’s with the erection. But Luc was not listening to him. He was looking at me, clammy and wide-eyed. He wanted to know why not. “Because it’s fucking weird,” I told him. Luc seemed astonished. I said, “You’re not healthy.” Where those words came from, I have no idea, but part of me hoped they might be the start of a conversation. Instead, Luc broke eye contact and turned pissy, told me to have a good night and pulled away, leaving me standing there as if I had somehow offended him—me, another pathetically American puritan who couldn’t possibly understand the fun of a bit of Euro-style perversion. Well, what can you expect in a town like this? I finished my Coke and kept walking. Wonderfully strange how everything was so shuttered and quiet. I walked past the library, past the town hall, past the police station—there was a light on in there, but I didn’t see anyone inside—and past the hospital. I walked right out of town and onto King’s Highway.

Now I’m thinking, here’s where things might get a little tricky, because of the occasional car that whizzes by. But there’s also a bike path, and in places it veers a little from the highway, so that I’m not exactly walking on the shoulder. Should I be afraid? I don’t feel afraid. I’ll fucking kill you, I silently promise. I’ll put my keys through your eyeballs. Perhaps I’m feeling a little too intrepid, on account of having disabled Jeremy with such unscripted ease, or perhaps because of the meth, or a combination of both, probably. In any case, I’m not feeling my mortality. I’m rather numb to it. And I keep on walking, with a swing to my step, my only nod to caution being that I’m not going to put the earbuds in. I begin to think of my prospects. I don’t feel I have to knock on wood. I’m at the time in my life when I can discern one future, swirl it around, spit it out, then try another. For sure I know that I’m not going to be an academic. God, no. I want something else after my name, preferably the word editor, preferably at one of the major online magazines. When I turn off King’s Highway into my neighborhood, I brush against the dewy limb of a tree and a hail of droplets falls on me. I shake my hair, run my fingers through it and press wet palms against my cheeks. A short downhill section, and I have to keep myself from breaking into a merry little run. There’s not a light on yet in the old neighborhood, and a blanket of fog hugs the ground. I’m walking on the sidewalk now, between the lawns and the median. A dog barks from down the street somewhere. I listen to my footsteps. All is peaceful and cozy until I hear a whirring sound behind me. I’m not too concerned. I turn around kind of lazily. But when I see what’s coming, I turn into a pillar of ice. All of a sudden, I can breathe in, but I can no longer breathe out. Some hideous thing—hooded, grotesquely shaped and silent as death—is skimming over the fog. In a moment it is upon me. But then it floats on by, and I hear a squealing sound. The thing turns around and begins to slowly circle in front of me. “Hey, Brittany,” it says. The nightmarish vision resolves into something more hackneyed. In fact, I know its name. It is Ethan, who is riding his bike and wearing a raincoat over newspaper bags filled with newspapers. Unaccountably, my parents know his parents. Ethan is a twit. He has this awful job delivering newspapers, his parents talk about how busy he has become because he needs to earn enough merit badges to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. Meanwhile he attends public school and has done well enough to be accepted into Georgetown. I can feel my heart still rapidly pounding as I come down from my fright. “Are you jogging?” he asks. It seems he is determined to stay on his bike. He stands up on the pedals and moves the handlebars back and forth to keep the thing from falling over. I answer, “I am walking home.” He wants to know, “Home from where?” Irritation wells up in me like bile from my stomach. Of course I don’t answer. He reaches under his coat and brings out a rolled up newspaper. “You want yours now?” he asks. I say, “No, I don’t want mine now. Jesus. Get out of my way, Ethan.” He’s used to it. I’ve never treated him differently. He puts the newspaper back in the bag and almost falls over while doing it. “Whoa.” He grins. “Almost.” He puckers up his mouth and stands still on the pedals. The bike’s not moving at all now. It takes all his concentration. The dog from down the street starts barking again. Then he grins and weighs down on the pedals. The bike starts to move, slowly at first. He turns away and waves. Bye, bye, he waves. I wave too. Go the fuck away, I wave. Bye, bye, he waves back. Life is so damn weird. There goes a twit, I think, and of course it all happens much, much later, but there goes my future husband too. He pedals through the fog, and the father of my children takes the first left. The love of my life then disappears, and I am left alone. It’s not until I’m near the end of the street and the beginning of my street that the first light goes on. Meaning, someone’s up, meaning this night has ended and a new day has begun.

Roger Mensink was born in Belgium and grew up in the Netherlands and Seattle. He received his MFA from UCLA (in painting) and currently lives in Los Angeles. Recent fiction appears in Revolver and is forthcoming in Literary Orphans.