This story is incredibly important to me. I originally wrote this in May of 2013, but worked on it December of 2014, July and December of 2017, and finally, in July of 2018; it may be the most I’ve worked on a story, and the most sporadic.
It’s been poking at the back of my mind. I loved the story from the moment it came to me, driving the roads of Mountain Top on a fall night so many years ago. Yet I was reluctant to dig it up; part of me worried what I’d find, rereading this today, in 2021. Rereading it, though, I realize in worrying that I was being uncharitable and unsympathetic. Rereading it, I know it’s honest. It is an honest expression of the isolation and confusion—both in my friendships and my romantic relationships—that I grew up in. It’s my frustration and sadness expressed unconsciously in a story, before I even had the words to be conscious of it.
Gus Smith, February 2021.
It must have been fall, as we were deep into the football season. As is usual around here, the remnants of summer lingered late—if not in the weather, than in our perception of it, and I suspect that we, in coats and hats, were still driving with the windows down.
As we passed in front of the bleachers, a voice from the student section called my name—someone I used to know, used to go to school with, probably. They called my name, and then, though likely no one else knew me, the entire section was calling my name, or what they thought my name was, or what they thought everyone else was yelling, and soon enough whatever harmony was once had was lost. Like some inanimate echo machine made of so many animate parts. She looked back. We kept walking.
Climbing the stairs up to the bleachers, I saw that we were taking up three or four rows of seats on the far side. Our group formed some anomalous shape, its borders well defined by the row or two of space that everyone else gave us; as she and I sat down, the shape shifted to absorb us.
I turned to her and could feel them looking; their apprehension reflected as anxiety in her eyes. “These are my friends. I think you’ve met some–”
“Late again, man.” I hadn’t seen him when we came in, but I would have known he’d be there. I spotted him sitting just behind two of my friends who were singing the school’s fight song, and as I’d find out later, had been singing it since the first quarter after losing a bet. He was a friend of mine. Of course, they all were, but only through him. He and I had grown up together; we’d gone to school together until high school, when he’d come here, the local public school, and I’d gone off somewhere else.
“I don’t think I ever told you I was coming,” I responded.
“Doesn’t matter. We’re halfway into the third quarter already. You missed halftime.”
“Nothing happens at halftime! This is high school football.”
“Wrong. The band plays at halftime.”
“Except not tonight,” someone corrected from somewhere over to the left. “Too cold. The other team’s band didn’t even show up.” One of the fight-song singers nodded his head in confirmation, but kept on singing.
“So then I really missed nothing at all.”
“You missed him harassing the cheerleaders from the bleachers,” they informed me.
“Which he does the entire game. I didn’t miss anything.”
“It doesn’t matter, man. It’s a matter of principle. Showing up late brings down morale. If you’d been here on time, we wouldn’t be down fourteen points.”
“It’s about to be twenty points,” someone noted, though his voice was almost drowned out in the ensuing mix of cheers and boos. For a moment, the fight song grew louder to keep up with the general level of noise in the stands.
I hadn’t looked at the scoreboard once since we’d gotten there. Force of habit; there was never good news. I looked now, though, as the point keeper up in the booth lingered just a bit before changing the number on the scoreboard.
“Fuck! You see what you do?”
Sitting to my right, she turned towards me with a face that seemed to ask, is he serious?
I looked to answer, but before I could, someone spoke up. “You guys have this kind of argument every single time you’re together,” they complained.
“It’s only been recently that he’s been doing it,” I said. “I don’t know. You know how he is. I can handle it. I’ve put up with him all my life.”
“I know….but he’s starting to sound like he’s your girlfriend or something. It’s weird,” and then, seeing her next to me, “speaking of your girlfriend. I don’t think we’ve met.”
“What?” I said. “Oh. No. No, she’s not–”
“HEY! I see you, with those pom poms!”
Everyone turned to look; no one looked surprised. He was leaning up against the front railing of the bleachers, yelling out. She’d been subdued in any form of expression since we got there. In retrospect, she was always subdued around me. But now, I could see something in her face: the best I could guess, it was a mix of embarrassment, discomfort, and disgust. That’s when I decided to go down to him.
At the railing, he quit his yelling and looked over at me expectantly. Everything was silent, for just a second.
I turned to the railing. “HEY!” I yelled. He smiled. “You got a date to semi?”
“And if you do, can we fight him?” he added.
Our team ended up getting crushed that night, but no one was really watching. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, she and I were leaving the stands. She’d had enough of them, I could tell. I didn’t blame her.
“GAMEDAY!” I heard, from the crowd behind me. I saw the downcast faces in the bleachers turn to disgust, as they searched for the source. I already knew who it was was; by her sigh, I guessed she did too. “Gameday, guys! Let’s watch some football!” he yelled, as he caught up to us. “But seriously, where you guys going?” he asked.
It was probably only about nine o’clock on a Friday night, if we were leaving early—we weren’t headed home yet. Nowadays, I’d interpret that as a suggestive statement, one meant to lead the reader into guessing where we were headed; back then, though, I would have been guessing at our destination, too. There were no destinations but here and home; there were just the roads.
“Not sure, man. I was just going to drive.”
“You mind if I come with you guys?” he asked, as if he would’ve accepted a ‘no’; we were already at my car, and he was already getting in the back.
We were on the road, having broken free of the post-game traffic jam in the school’s parking lot. Along the road we could see the outlines of kids walking back to the school from the McDonald’s on the corner, whose sign shone bright above the intersection below. The only other light was the radio masts, far down the road, on the hillside ahead. You could see them from anywhere, though.
The road we were on cut the circular basin of my town like a chord. The hillside ahead of us circles around to the left and right, meeting up behind us; though we took a right out of the school’s parking lot, taking a left would have us facing the same hillside. On the hillside ahead sits the town’s radio masts; by far, the town’s only distinguishing characteristic. From the flat lands within the basin, you could always see them. That late at night, though, in late fall, we wouldn’t have been able to see the towers themselves—just their lights.
From the backseat, he was talking to her about something. Or, talking at her. I’d never actually introduced them, but that didn’t matter to him. It sounded as if he was rattling off some of our favorite memories from football seasons past. Even just the memories from this intersection, or from the McDonald’s…listening to him, he made the memories seem infinite; every story was one I’d long forgotten, every story gave me that nostalgia that you don’t often feel.
He was a walking history book of our memories together, not just he and I but memories from all of our friends. And once he got going, I never cared to stop him. It was better white noise than any of the late-night radio stations. I turned down the volume knob.
He talked at the back of her head, and she nodded and laughed when appropriate, but she and I knew the stories didn’t have the same value. He never really understood that, with anyone. She reached for my hand, held it. He kept talking. There was no urgency in her grip, or in his voice, or in my pace across town.
Soon enough we’d reached the pass through the hillside, at the far end of town. The radio masts lay dead ahead, on top of the hills through which the pass cuts.
At the pass, you could continue following the road—it’d take you out between the hillsides, and down to the valley below. Down towards my school; down towards the rest of the world. We didn’t often go that way, if we didn’t have to.
At the pass also begins a road, forking sharply off to the right. It quickly loops back around, towards town. The road follows the train tracks—the northern border of the town—and takes you directly away from the radio masts.
The masts hung above us. He’d stopped talking, and we all stared at the red lights as if they were novel. It being the only option, I took the right onto that road that night. As I swung the car sharply around the bend, I watched her eyes follow the radio masts.
“When was the last time you counted the lights?” I asked him, without thinking.
“It’s been a couple of months,” he answered.
“Yeah, same here,” I replied.
“You know how I got that night job on the far side of town, last year? For the first few nights, I drove this way. I counted them every time.”
“Night after night? I’m not sure how much of that I could take.”
“Yeah. For the next few nights I tried to avoid doing it, but it’s like telling yourself not to think about pink elephants. Now I just take a different route to work.”
“What’s ‘counting the lights’?” she asked.
We were silent. It wasn’t the first time we’d seen someone wonder just the same; it was the first time we’d heard someone put it into words.
“Uhm…” he began. He looked to me. “You got this. You’re the one at the fancy school.”
I thought for a bit. I really did think, too. “We can’t answer that question,” was all I could muster.
Silence. She looked confused, like we were pulling something over on her.
“We aren’t able to answer that question,” I added. It had significance in my head, but felt feeble on my tongue.
Silence. A long silence. She felt that he’d become quiet in the back seat.
A while later, he spoke: “Now, you saw the towers, right?” he asked her.
“Yeah, how could I not?” she responded.
“Exactly. So you know how tall each one was. How many lights were on each one. Well, around this–”
“Wait,” she interrupted, “What? I mean, I saw the lights, but why would I know how many there were on each?”
“Ask him how many there are on each,” I told her.
He didn’t wait for her. “There’s five on each. The shorter one to the left has only four.”
“The blinking on the third and fourth are nearly perfectly in sync,” I added. “Only off by two or three minutes a year. The rest are out of sync with each other completely.”
“…what?” she asked again.
“So there are basically five on each,” he said.
“What’s it matter?” she asked.
We were just passing the lowest point in the road, dipping below the train tracks and now climbing above them. Eventually the road stops climbing, high above the railroad to the right. High enough for them to have put up a guardrail on that side. We pass the tire marks I’d made some early morning that past summer, slamming on the brakes but still clipping the tail of a deer.
Previous to this section of road, the road winds from left to right. But here, its oscillations dampen, and the lights of the masts appear in the center of the rearview.
“Five on each. Each one is five lights tall,” he repeated.
“Sure, yeah,” she said. She was gripping my hand harder.
“But you’re taking our word for it. It could be four.”
“Why don’t I just look?” she said. She brought her head towards the dash and looked through the left side-view mirror. “One, two, three, four, five. Five, like you said. Not four.”
“Okay. It could be four, but it’s not. But it could be six, right? You’re still taking our word for it.”
“I only take your word for it because I really don’t care. I don’t know why I would,” she replied. Nonetheless, she was curious; I watched her dip her head a bit lower, to try and see the tops of the towers in the mirror. “Alright, there, I see the sixth light on each.”
My heart skipped a beat, or half of one. I knew it couldn’t not work; there was nothing to “work” in the first place. This is how it’s always been. I knew it’d be. Regardless, it catches you, every single time. I let go of her hand, and put both hands on the wheel.
“There it is,” I heard him say to himself, in the seat behind me. She didn’t hear him. She turned around to him in the backseat. He looked solemn; where previously he’d been sticking his head between the two front seats, now he was stretching across the backseat, head against the window.
She looked to me, confused.
“It’s five,” I told her.
“What?” she said.
“It’s five. We weren’t lying to you.”
“It’s six. I just counted.” She leaned over again, and began counting aloud. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.” She began to sit back up.
My head turned to my rearview; I caught myself and turned it back to the road before I saw anything. She saw my head jerk out of the corner of her eye, and she froze. She leaned over one more time, craning even further, seeing even higher into the sky behind us.
“Four, five, six, seven.” She stopped again. “Guys?”
No response from us. There was nothing to be said.
“Eight, nine, ten…”
“All the way through the clouds,” he said to himself. I kept my eyes on the road. ◾