By Matthew Wallenstein
The sun was coming up. The sky was turning red. There was fog everywhere, rising from the pavement and from the trees like breath. We rolled the windows down and the air was cold and clean. We had been up all night driving and we were passing through the mountains of North Dakota. Ben was behind the wheel and I was in the passenger seat keeping him company. The other seven people on tour with us were sleeping in the back of the van. We were about six weeks into a full US tour. Ben and I had been at each other’s throats since 13 states back and he was smart enough to know a night of driving, just him and me, would do us some good.
Ben and I met in preschool. The teachers let the kids outside unsupervised during recess. There was a mound of dirt behind the building where we played king of the hill. Ben had never lost to anyone, neither had I. So I watched him push kid after kid down the hill and laugh at them. I went up and he did it to me too. I was furious. I stood back up and climbed to the top of the hill and threw him off. It felt good. I hated him. He hated me. When his mother came at the end of the day to pick him up I told her he was a jerk, she told me he wasn’t a jerk all the time. After that we became best friends and beat up all the older kids together. In the years since there was no one I ever fought against or on the same side as more than Ben. We beat the hell out of each other almost every time we spent more than a few minutes together, but we also helped each other in large and minute ways.
It had taken till sunrise, but we were remembering we loved each other. As we drove across into Montana we were back to laughing, mooning truck drivers, seeing how long we could hold the dying jerry-rigged van over 100 miles an hour. There was a creek along the side of the road and we decided we would follow it until it was deep enough to swim in. Eventually it went between two large cliffs to the left of the road. Ben spotted a pull-off and he parked in front of some trees. We opened our doors and stepped onto the dirt. The sun was bright, I held my hand above my eyes like I was saluting.
The side door opened and as it did various food containers and a few shoes fell out. Chris had woken up. He came out of the van mumbling with a candy bar wrapper stuck to the side of his head. He shut the door. He had punched its window out with his bare hand back when we were in California. He hadn’t done it on purpose, he’d just gotten excited and needed to hit something. It exploded completely when his fist made contact. One of us cut a piece of cardboard to fit the space and it was still there held on by duct tape. We all took turns sleeping in the van so no one would break in and take our stuff.
The three of us walked to the edge of the trees and looked down to where the water was. It was a very steep 200 feet down. We slid on dirt, tripped over roots, fell over a few times, but made it.
The water was moving fast and rough. It was white and perfect. We stood on a rock. Looking up I saw there were tall cliffs of red dirt and stone. A collapsing railroad bridge ran from a cliff on our side of the water to a cliff on the far side. We started taking off our clothes. The sun was heating up but we were still in the mountains and it was still cold. Ben and I stood there naked. Chris pulled his underwear down. There were these boils on the backs of his legs and his ass, they had been growing since shortly after we left New York. At this point they were swollen and green, about the size of limes.
“Do they hurt?”
“Ugh. Yeah they hurt like hell.”
I jumped off the rock into the water. Ben and I grew up in New Hampshire and swam summer after summer in the White Mountains where the water makes your skin feel like ice and static. We knew cold water. This was cold water. Not so cold you couldn’t breathe when you were in it, but close. It felt good. Ben jumped in. Chris started peeing on us and laughing. I climbed out and pushed him in the water. We took turns punching each other, and throwing one another off the rocks, skipping stones, holding each others’ heads under water.
Chis climbed out and stood on the large rock where our clothes were. Either from the cold or from the impact of jumping, one of the boils on the back of Chris’ knee had burst and pus was dripping down his leg.
“Oh, shit, Chris look at your leg man,” I said.
“Oh, shit,” said Ben.
“Oh, shit,” said Chris.
Chris bent over and started squeezing the boil. He was making sounds like it really hurt. Ben and I were still in the water off to the side of the rock.
“Okay guys, this is where the white water really starts so it’ll get pretty bumpy.” This was a voice coming from up the river.
I looked around the rock in the direction it was coming from and sure enough a raft was coming around the bend. It was a group of Boy Scouts and their leader. From where Ben and I were we could see them but they couldn’t have seen us. They could however see Chris: naked, very hairy, bent over with his ass facing them, legs covered in boils, and pushing pus out of one of them. I watched them as they passed by staring, jaws hanging off their faces like broken hinges. They went on down the river, under the railroad bridge and around another curve and were gone.
Ben and I got out. We laughed till it hurt, till we couldn’t breathe. We lay on the rock and let the sun dry us off. Then we put our clothes on and climbed up the railroad bridge and everyone else kept sleeping in the old blue Ford van, the morning turning into the day.