Camacho knows guys from a town over; he has cousins there. Not a one of them—he or his cousins—grew up anywhere but a rural corner of overlooked American community. You’d never see them anywhere in the media, unless one of them committed a crime too horrendous not to share. And even with that notoriety, they’d be a fuse that fizzled on a dud firecracker. Camacho did well enough—made friends, was well-liked, held the favor of a handful of high school teachers; he didn’t finish in the top ten of his class, but he did land consistently in the top third, which was enough to get him lumped in with the smart kids. And he rode that reputation, for whatever it was worth. It was a currency that seemed to get him somewhere, though it might have been a gold-leafed finish on an antique sewing machine whose owners assumed was worth more than it really was. In that rural Tennessee community, one invested in whatever currency was available. But dammit, the cool cousins lived a town over—same county, but a different world altogether in Camacho’s mind.
He wanted to be like them, though he had no way of conceiving such a transition. Ain’t it funny how the world, whose parameters we know to be vast, and whose celebrities we know to be impossibly positioned for the life they have—ain’t it funny how that world still shrinks to the dimensions of a life? Inside the walls of any given house, you will find millions of people living dramas as poignant as that of any film, and the only explanation for this is that the human condition dictates it.
No, Camacho was not his real name; it was a name born of his friends calling him Macho Camacho for reasons lost to time. By tenth grade, it had shortened organically to just Camacho, and it stuck, no matter how white Charles could be. Yes, his real name was Charles. In fact, his mother, a curly red wig-wearing wannabe line dancer on CMT, called him Chuck most his life, but even she had taken to calling him Camacho by the time he graduated high school. At graduation, a contingent of underclassmen chanted “Camacho, Camacho, Camacho” when Charles crossed the raised platform to shake the superintendent’s hand and receive his diploma. They’d announced he was going to the University of Tennessee at Martin to major in biology. “Camacho! Camacho! Camacho!”
He was living his personal, film-worthy drama in the summer after graduation, just as one may suspect: late nights on backroads; mid-mornings in the kitchen at McDonald’s, toasting buns; evening meals with his mom and little brother, and then back to those aimless backroads with the very same friends who’d designated him Camacho. He dallied in his parents’ church’s youth group, taking on a periodic lay counselor role—a role requiring little other than a willingness to show up. There was Vacation Bible School, youth camp, and a trip to Dollywood. He counselled younger kids, meaning he went along for the ride, soaking up attention from the younger girls which made him feel good and he was still young enough that it didn’t seem creepy. Hell, he was still a kid at eighteen—so what if the girl crushing on him was only fourteen? He was smart enough not to pursue it. He thrived on the possibility something could happen, not that it would happen.
One July night, on one of those rural backroads, with little fear of sheriff’s deputies—who had a reputation for confiscating your beers and sending you on your way, though everyone feared being the kid one of these deputies decided to make an example of—Camacho and his friends ran into two of those aforementioned cool cousins. The eldest’s arms were tatted up—it was hot out, so they all had on short-sleeves, but they weren’t tight shirts, because they weren’t so juvenile as to need to show anything off, muscle-wise. The three of them were standing by a vehicle, each smoking a cigarette; their faces were blurry in the moonlight. A bug-mute field of soybeans dipped to a shallow bowl behind them.
“Phillip? Is that you?” said the oldest cousin—real name Dewayne, nickname Rasta. Phillip was Camacho’s middle name, and for uncertain reasons, the branch of the family comprised of the cool cousins had always called him that. They were the only ones ever to do it.
“Yeah. Hey, what’s up?” said Camacho out the rear lowered window, through which he’d been yelling, “I’m invincible!” only fifteen minutes before, with the Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth” blasting through the scrub oak. Drunk buzzes were plentiful that night. The country pavement ferried all the young men to transcendence, even those cool ones who effected boredom, like Camacho’s cousins. Charles “Camacho” Phillip Ridenour was now trying to effect a modicum of sobriety—he didn’t want his cousins to know just how drunk he really was. The night was humid in that special memory-making way of rural southern towns. The roads were microcosms—of what, no one was sure. Earlier, they had played some vehicular variant of the game chicken—gambled with their lives—nearly leaving the ground as the Sentra had all but gotten airborne crossing Old Lake Road at high speed—no preview of oncoming traffic, just a hope and a dose of intoxication, and an unchallenged belief in youth’s immunity to tragedy. The world had been as much before them as the cornfield they’d nearly tunneled into.
But now the daredevil ecstasy had faded, and they were parked with half their wheels on the shoulder of Possum Trot Road, smoking cigarettes clumsily and laughing over exaggerated encounters with girls. Camacho wanted so deeply to be cool—for those cool cousins, especially, leaned against their own car—a beater, really, but somehow infused with unsayable coolness (what had they done in a previous life to earn such easy coolness?). The sky stretched wide with blue-blackness, with a luminosity akin to translucence—bony branches of dead hickories prickling staunch into the low light. Camacho, though his drunkenness had passed into the lethargic stage—the bygone, head-tossing unbelievability stage—was craving a piss and a burger, in that order. The piss came easily, the mound of grass beside the car as privy to the mystery of consciousness as the sky with her distant stars. He drained his bladder into the privet and honeysuckle, imagining he communed with the earth, watering her with his waste, which to the earth was more than waste. I suppose she’s as good a god as any, he thought, meaning the earth. The humidity blanketed his beer-numb nose, exchanging sweetness for sweat. And what is that metallic smell, and is ‘metallic’ even the right descriptor?
And what happens over in Lake County? Truth be told, the young woman he was with—a bona fide drinking friend with occasional benefits—would rather have limited his access to the neighboring county, but what could she do? She and he knew that, over there, beyond the penitentiary, they partied—meth-saturated benders where anything could happen, and the price paid in rotten teeth and prison terms held little concern. There were shacks among the corn and bean fields—rickety, flimsy pseudo-shelters where crystal methamphetamine was cooked with impunity. Of course their sheriffs knew about the cook sites—once in a while, they might raid one of these meth houses and round up someone of meager significance, and you could bet the local paper would print a front-page story about how the authorities had leveled a big hit against the illegal drug trade. And labeling it a “trade” had the unfortunate side effect of legitimizing many a loser’s path to lifelong shitty-ness.
They made their way, outward, outward—toward the lake—a geography bereft of accurate notation; loose legends of native people haunting the bluffs whenever anyone bothered to pay attention. The two-lane roads were named for families. Some of the curves were hairpin. Allegedly, creeks flowing into the watershed had their mysterious origins in the bluffs, but though they appeared on a map, they weren’t giving up their sources to the engaged passerby, not even in daylight.
“Can there be a word today as vapid as the word ‘cool’?” asked Jennifer D. She had been Camacho’s off-and-on crush, and she didn’t even know it. Or maybe she suspected it—he sure did hang around a lot. If she wasn’t interested romantically, though, she no less enjoyed the attention. He frequently looked at her breasts, but she tolerated and even forgave him this, because why, she didn’t know; the intricacies of human connection preclude civility. At least he hadn’t tried to touch them, like so many drunk boys.
They were headed to a party—all of them: Jennifer D. and her closest girlfriends and Camacho and his drinking buddies. Two separate cars but one unit, clearly—often in communication, despite the yards between them. Camacho had turned his hat around at some point—not like a private function of the self, the way some men do, finding pieces of their identity in such easy gestures, but turned a full 180 degrees in a brazen, redneck manifestation of coolness—an artist who’s opened his studio for strangers to linger with wine buzzes and drone on about aesthetics, while he sits close pretending not to listen—a backwoods art crawl through the canvas of trees and enough kudzu to wrap a forest, making of its mature plants a sculpture garden worthy of ancient deities. Out there, the spoken word of Jim Morrison made sense. But this wasn’t the usual backroad recklessness—they had a destination. So The Doors was now out; in their place was Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy (in the car Camacho rode in; in the other car, it was straight Meek Mills).
The hills of Possum Trot rolled along in sharp bands—that’s how the road clung to them, like a ribbon of black taffy, faintly tar-scented. A party! They were going to a party, and parties in the sticks—which, though it technically was at a house beside the lake, flanked on each side by a row of similar houses, ranch-style and modest, was far enough from home to be labeled “the sticks,” for the kids who lived in town, of which Camacho and Jennifer D were two; parties in the sticks held a mystique that parties in the quiet neighborhoods of the town, though often quite fun, could not match. Between the little community of Possum Trot and the lakeside town of Samburg was one of those kudzu-wrapped dioramas of giant trees, bordering a deep ravine that, in the dark, looked twice as cavernous. On this late-spring Friday night, the tall, sculptural trees appeared to be moving as their cars rolled past, drifting heavy like brachiosauruses. And soon the cars were making a deep-graded descent from the bluffs to the lake, from Choctaw-haunted mounds of hardwood forests to flat, cypress-riddled shores of gently lapping waves—waves that one had to be within a few feet to even hear, but once that close, mesmerized the listener into commune with the black water itself, into the cottonmouth prayer and murk, whose far-off splashing of god-knows-what reverberated in parallel worlds of matter and spirit, sending a quickening through the veins of both the abstinent and the drunk.
To be at a party at the house beside the lake was to be aware of that quickening, but it was also the kind of thing a reveler could tune out, and this is what Camacho did. Jennifer D. had vanished into the living room soon after entering, seeking out friends. Camacho, however, got hung up in the kitchen where a couple of his friends were doing shots. The shots came from a gallon-size plastic jug, and the booze was a shade of clear brown that could have been either Scotch or tequila—he would never figure out which—the spirit’s identity was secondary to the effect it would give, anyway, and he was numb enough and swim-brained enough that he couldn’t have told the difference anyhow. It should be noted here that the young man was reviving, a phenomenon different from sobering up, and one that is strongest in youth, but it’s that ability to rally from a nearly asleep drunkenness and be ready for the next round. The party atmosphere was, itself, enough to provoke this, because the thing Camacho enjoyed more than a good buzz was to have a good buzz in a room full of people who also had good buzzes. He perked up quickly.
“Here’s to friends and lovers and fuck all the others!” It was a toast that rang out often at these things. The young men downed their brown liquor and winced and coughed, but no one threw up.
“Shit, that burns!” said Joe.
“Woo!” shouted Chad.
Camacho said nothing but grinned and wiped his mouth. The ocher linoleum danced at his feet, little vibrations faintly electric, projecting waves of purple and pink from out of the dark yellow. He raised his head to look around at the partygoers—he’d only heard of the guy whose parent’s house this was. It felt like everyone else knew the guy, but this couldn’t have been true. Most of the faces were familiar. Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” was playing somewhere. Camacho began to walk, assuming a low center of gravity to help him walk straight, passing through the living room. He said something flirty to a girl he knew was out of his league, and she graciously responded, because she was kind. He was tempted to think maybe she’d fool with a guy like him, but he knew better. They both knew better, and this had to be okay, and it was okay. No trace of a hard feeling arose in him at the soft refusal; he’d respect her for the rest of his life, but he’d also know he’d flirted with her, and that was worth something.
Back in the kitchen, having made a round through the parts of the house that weren’t locked or otherwise off-limits, he rejoined his tequila-scotch swilling buddies. More people were gathered there now, and the drunkenness was taking on a performative aspect. It wasn’t to see who could get the drunkest, it was more to see who could be most amusing, and in this, if nothing else, Camacho excelled. Yes, he would love to make out with a cute county girl, but just as satisfying, he’d love to make the whole room laugh, and it was the second of these scenarios that was most immediate (with hope held out for the latter, of course), so that’s what he did: on the Formica counter, a red dish towel was gathered loosely around a white paper doily—whatever had sat on the doily previously was gone—and he grabbed a dry erase marker from the family whiteboard near the door and scrawled a set of eyes and an impossibly large grinning mouth on the doily, and then he stepped back, paused for effect, and in as serious a tone as he could, said, “Ronald McDonald.” The room erupted. It was goofy good vibe drunkenness—stupid humor, innocent in its way, the kind that feels like it could veer into wittiness or absurdity, often in the same night. The smile of a pretty girl from the county school rippled through the air, nearly missing him, but he caught it and, emboldened, shot it right back; she turned back to her friends, all of them aglow with the interchange, flirting vicariously and in support, the way packs of young women sometimes do. This is how we know we’re animals: these interchanges are immediate—no need for words. Pure instinct began its work of driving the two into proximity, pheromonally almost, despite the game of disinterest they each felt compelled to play. It seemed as if the only thing that might interfere with a hook-up was the whim of those with whom they’d ridden—a sudden decision by a designated driver to leave, that is—a plausible threat in situations like these.
Everyone was laughing, everyone thought he was funny. He could feel it, too, the way showing out at a drinking party could earn a weird sort of admiration, existent on a parallel plane, not understandable at all, but recognized and carried over into the following week, potentially to follow a person to his grave. The inherently romantic grave, to the young, for whom death is never final; it only becomes final in quaking middle age. True finality—you see it from a vantage point of years lived. But the Camachos of the world aren’t seeing death that way, they’re seeing it through a lens of whiskey buzz and longing. And dark enchantment—poets naked on the Brocken, doting on Dionysus, who will spare their heads. Working-class boys, fully-dressed in their best jeans, racing through Shawtown and Possum Trot—what god of the fields will spare their heads?
No need for head-sparing, though, at the house by the lake. All the partiers feel safe within the glow they share. No one wants to go home yet, not even designated drivers, of which there are very few, because immortal teens need not resort to such measures (though one sophomore girl will find herself the exception, and she’ll live the rest of her long days with a bitter ache). Everyone young gets a pass to feel invincible—the universe grants it, no matter if it’s backed up by reality. We feel lucky on the winding backroads, wrapping round cornfields still in their mown guise of fall, stubbled and faded yellow, pale like bone. The kids from the town go out and mingle with their counterparts in the county—the pretty girls who have been friends since kindergarten, playing basketball and being cheerleaders at the same satellite elementary schools. All the shared memories, and now, too, this night, the party by the lake, to be yet another shared memory. Oh, they’ll joke about not remembering things, because of the alcohol freely flowing, but enough will remain.
Crash! A card table’s legs buckled under the weight of drunken Billy Forsythe, whose daddy was a judge. It was natural that Billy’s nickname was Judge, given his father’s prominence, presiding over both juvenile and adult cases and known by all. Billy “Judge” Forsythe the Younger was affable sober, and downright hilarious drunk. As early as high school, he had the easy manner of one who’s experienced things—it didn’t matter that he really hadn’t.
Enter Camacho to help up his friend Billy.
“C’mon buddy, you alright?” said Camacho, laughingly.
“I’m right as rain,” said rosy-cheeked Billy, nearly laughing at his own comment. “A comment is a comment, even if it’s a cliché. We must remember that.”
“What?!” shouted Camacho, and all within earshot laughed outrageously. “Right as rain,” a phrase so antiquated that no one there got it, and they all thought it was the brown liquor talking, writing it off as a hilarious offshoot of the Judge’s quirkiness. They all loved him, no matter what he said or meant. One or two of them might hear that phrase down the road and remember they’d heard it somewhere, but not a one of them would link it to Billy “Judge” Forsythe.
Eventually, that near-imperceptible point came when a crowd knows to start thinning. People were leaving, but why? The party was so much fun. This felt so unfair to Camacho, who’d thought the party was truly just beginning—had believed it in his heart-of-hearts, whatever that meant. The house was a vessel emptying. A cozy, general mock-up of any house where a family might live its day-to-day, except this one was transfigured by merriment—wood paneling printed with country scenes, somehow charming: a whitetail deer jumping a barbwire fence. And now, though—and now, in the wake of merriment, the ache of its absence.
Fuck ‘em all. That classic counterfeit rage that a young person summons at will was returning. Camacho was coming full circle, as they say. He’d gone from drunk to sleepy to revived drunk and now just drunk-drunk and with a spot of anger, with sleepy soon to reappear. Guns ‘N’ Roses played somewhere in the house—the back half of Appetite for Destruction—“My Michelle,” maybe. Yeah definitely it was that. GNR was decades old, but that music endured, and if fit so right fading into the night. He finished the keg beer, squashed the plastic, tossed it into the trash beneath the kitchen sink, and walked out onto the back porch of the house. And guess who was there.
Those cool cousins stood in a jagged arc around the back porch, as if they’d been waiting for him. The oldest, who was closest in age to Camacho, held a plastic half-empty liter of something—again, a clear brown, but this one distinctively yellow in tint, which made Camacho think it was tequila. That cousin, Dewayne, extended his tattooed right arm to Camacho, passing him the bottle. How does he have so many tattoos at his age? Dewayne’s little brothers, a sophomore and a very worldly freshman, waited patiently for their swigs, not judging, not jostling like kids. They didn’t have tattoos yet because they were still too young, but there’s no doubt that when the time came, they’d embark on sleeves to rival their eldest brother’s. He’d seen them on the road somewhere outside Possum Trot, and now they were here at this party, or at what remained of this party, and suddenly the departing crowd seemed not to matter. It was eleven-ish, and he was supposed to be home by twelve, but this opportunity beset him. What opportunity? To hang with his own blood—his not-as-known-by-him-as-they-should-be cousins, the sons of a cousin of his mother—the branch of the family that called him Phillip.
“There’s a party at the levee,” said Dewayne, often pronounced Dee-wayne.
“Where’s that?” asked Camacho.
“Out past Tiptonville.”
“That’s not here,” slurred a shot-bemused Camacho. Dewayne laughed.
“You wanna go?”
Camacho was caught up in it, and it was all the sweeter due to their familial relation. It felt instantly extra close. He imagined this bond thick, despite a lack of shared experience. He’d leave behind the friends he’d come with—including Jennifer D.—and ride out to the party at the levee. All the while, with cypresses sliding by overhead, they’d pass a bottle, listening to Tupac. Camacho and Dewayne and Dewayne’s little brothers, whose names Camacho couldn’t keep straight. A car full of cousins—a Jeep Cherokee, to be exact, a dark cherry red, black in the night, windows half rolled-down to let out smoke. It was so dark by the lake—roadside structures hid in deep shadow. They rolled past Blue Bank Resort and the little park where a miniature train used to run; past Boyette’s restaurant and the long boardwalk that put you in communion with the root knobs dotting the shores, where you walked slowly, hoping to spy a beaver or water snake. At night, though, it was all subsumed by blackness, the line between liquid and solid erased, so that one could conceivably pass into the next realm just by wandering out to the furthest points of the boardwalk, lost forever.
Ain’t nothin’ but a gangsta party. Tupac half-singing, a little flat but somehow making it work.
They felt tough, possessed of a street cred none of them had, except for maybe Dewayne, who was known to always win fights. There was a stretch of two-lane blacktop bending in a long, wooded arc, all the way into Tiptonville. Camacho couldn’t come down here without sensing the nearby prison. He only had a vague idea where it was—he’d never been close enough even to see its razor-wire. But still, he had visions of convicts escaping, sprinting from shadow to shadow on the moonlit Tiptonville lawns. It was a time of night when he felt they may encounter an escapee, decked out in stolen jeans and a Levi’s shirt, trying to pass himself off as a hitchhiker, though surely no convict would be so bold as to stand by the road, what with patrols panting after him—half-person, half-bloodhound those cops would be, testing the air with their moist noses and deductive reasoning.
No wary strangers in the margins, though. In fact, not a soul was to be seen out-of-doors in Tiptonville at this hour, Saturday night or otherwise. Nothing at all was going on until they got to the little house at the further edge of town, beyond the city limits but still incorporated, if only loosely. Had it been daytime, the levee would’ve been visible, concealing the flat brown Mississippi. But dark as it was, nothing across the road from the wood-slatted house was visible but a few dozen yards of unsprouted field.
At the house was the opposite of nothing-going-on. Flood lights backlit a pair of silver maples in the front yard, one of them having sustained a lightning strike, half-dead or half-alive. Camacho peered up into its arthritic branches. There were swollen knots at the bends of the limbs—giant hag’s fingers, frozen mid-clutch. There were no leaves, so maybe the tree was fully dead after all. He couldn’t stare upward for long for fear of plowing into a car—automobiles in every space of the yard—not junkers in a makeshift scrapyard of the poverty-stricken, but functional, modern cars, clearly having been driven there that night—people coming to this party. There were voices and music, a faraway pulse of excitement leaking from inside. A few groups of smokers stood in whatever empty spaces they could find, laughing and gushing in the happy exaggeration of intoxication. Hard laughter, interspersed with “Awwwwws” and “No ways” and, occasionally, an “Are you fucking kidding me?”
They had found the real party—the possible rager till dawn. And when would the cops be there? Then Camacho saw a patrol car in the grass beside the unpaved driveway, where facets of gravel gleamed an infinite gray scale under the moon. The car was quiet and unoccupied. DeWayne saw Camacho processing this, and the other cousins were lighting cigarettes.
“Cops gotta party, too.’
“What else you think they’re doing in there? D’you seeing anyone trying to get away?”
“C’mon, it’s cool,” said Dewayne, patting his shoulder.
Camacho knew none of the people smoking outside, but Dewayne nodded at a couple of them. They were in a rural area adjacent his own rural area, but none of the faces were familiar.
There was no storm door, just a white wooden one with a diamond-shaped window about eye level. The door opened without having to turn the knob. Dewayne pushed inside, and before Camacho could get a clear look, he heard someone yell, “Dee-wayne!” The music and the crowd noise were nearly even, neither overpowering the other. The hip-hop beat that was only a hint outside was now clear and forevermore would be the soundtrack of the single-camera film in Camacho’s head, that’s how he’d think of it later. He walked in behind Dewayne and the packed living room spread before him like a wide-angle shot. A happiness hung in the air, a communal, extended release—the early part of a good party, before things start to go sloppy. It was almost midnight, and this party was just getting started, and Camacho, swaddled in a haze of his own, having already once gone sloppy himself and then rallied, was finding it easier and easier to ignore his curfew. He was with family, after all, and he counted on this to soften whatever consequence might come his way. And what’s more, a police officer was there. See, Mom? It was safe.
Right away, a girl was giving Camacho the eye. She was ordinarily pretty—wholesome—brown eyes, brown hair, feminine figure not too fully concealed beneath a loose shirt. She’d make a perfect girl-next-door fantasy. Maybe she looked familiar—the first to do so. Then he knew: she was a sophomore, or at least had been the past school year. She was one half of a pair of identical twins, and he saw her every day in the cafeteria and in the band house. She’d flirted with him before, or so he thought: it was so subtle he couldn’t tell whether it was flirtation or friendliness. It was a gentle flirtation—the kind that charms a heart but never breaks it. And he was mildly shocked to find her at this party—a party where he was one of the young ones. Yet she, a full two years younger, was here, too? He envied her freedom, but then maybe she was transgressing like him—abusing a privilege, maybe even using “time with family” as an excuse. Maybe it was easy for her, too, to pretend there wouldn’t be consequences.
Someone handed him a cup, a rim of foam sloshing inside, two-thirds full, rocking in his hand like a micro tempest—the color and stink of cheap beer, probably from a keg concealed in the bowels of the house, heavy and sweating on linoleum. It was a generous offering, and Camacho felt forces in the universe uniting behind his inebriation. This is a thing that happens—you can see its reflection in the bulbous, fluted plastic of cheap beer pitchers raised high in smalltown pool halls; it’ll have you swearing you’ve found your people.
“Swallow the night,” was the beer-giver’s response, himself clearly intoxicated, still in the happy phase of it. This beer-giver figure had to be in his late twenties—a grown-ass man in the eyes of an eighteen-year-old.
Camacho stood with his entourage. What was the policeman doing? He was talking and laughing—not visibly drinking, but approving the entire affair, nonetheless, by his mere presence. Only in Lake County, someone said, noticing Camacho was watching the cop. But probably not only in Lake County—it was probably in every backwater of every rural town: the all-out bender sanctioned by law enforcement, because everybody knows somebody who knows someone else, and we’re all friends here, right? Until we’re not.
“But does the night swallow?” shot back someone whom Camacho couldn’t see. The comment struck him, and he laughed hard, and those around began laughing, too. “Does the night swallow?” he shouted. And in it was absurdity and yearning.