Joyland

New York |

Missing Years

by Nicholas Mancusi

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

We made grilled cheese sandwiches in a skillet on the gas stove and then set right down to the matter of polluting ourselves before we got too sleepy. Traffic had been heavy on the way upstate, and we had arrived at the cabin too late to cook a real dinner like adults. There were five us, myself and the two couples: Kennedy/Corey and Siobhan/Ben. In the cavernous great room, under an antler chandelier and the taxidermied busts of various local fauna, we gathered to celebrate nothing in particular besides our youth.

Kennedy’s family called it “The Cabin,” but it was cabin-like only insofar as it was made of logs. It was huge, sectioned into two wings around the vaulted central room, stately but still rustic, the kind of place that American tycoons started building for themselves in the twenties so that they might get out of the city to collude in peace. This one was built in the fifties by Kennedy’s grandfather, whose bronze bust was said to exist somewhere in the library of Columbia Business School, although we could never find it. It was supposed to act as rally point for his family, which at the time was rapidly multiplying and dispersing across the northeast. Now that he was dead, the cabin served primarily as something for the family to fight over. But one weekend every summer for the six years since we had graduated from high school, Kennedy was given the keys and told to have a good time with her friends, which meant us.

***

Although under-manned, we worked through the triathlon of our favorite drinking games: beer pong, flip cup, and a card game of our own invention called “Fuck Me? No Fuck YOU!” The girls took turns playing music from their iPods; the males knew not to even try. During a lull in the energy, pre-prepared joints appeared, lovingly rolled downstate in anticipation, but I abstained, as I have to carefully monitor myself around that particular drug if I don’t want to end up hiding under a blanket battling a strain of despair that presents itself as a profound isolation from those closest to me.

The joints killed the competitive spirit required to make drinking games enjoyable, and soon we had re-arranged the furniture so that we could watch decades-old VHS tapes on the ancient wood-panel television. The speakers on the TV were fried, so we left the iPod blaring pop hits and tried to figure out what was going on on the screen by the visuals alone.

“What’s the plot of this?” I asked Kennedy.

“There is no plot. They’re just cats.”

“Just cats?”

“Yeah, that sing and dance.”

“No. That can’t be it.”

“I think it’s based on like some TS Eliot poems.”

“What about the magic and shit?”

“One of them is magic.”

“I don’t believe what you’re telling me.”

“Magic cat, dude, believe it,” Ben said from the couch, poking a key into a little baggie of white powder, which was something that he did that we weren’t huge fans of except for the occasions that we were possessed of a particularly wanton spirit, at which points he was a hero, soothsayer, prophet.

***

Corey had been my best friend since we met during a water break at football camp in eighth grade. He started dating Kennedy not long after that; they weren’t quite each other’s first kiss, but it was close. They gave each other their virginities, and besides one or two drunken collegiate incidents the full details of which the rest of us never received, they had remained, it seemed, faithful and in love. Now the inevitability of some future marriage hung over them so thickly that it wasn’t even interesting to talk about.

Siobhan was Kennedy’s best friend and former field hockey co-captain. She had been dating Ben only about half as long as Kennedy had been dating Corey, but long enough for Ben to have gone through the full cycle of male-friend assimilation with Corey and I: wariness, ridicule, hazing, and finally acceptance. Now it was hard to remember a time when we hadn’t considered ourselves a squad.

At the moment, I had no real girlfriend, and my attempts invite one of the two girls I had been texting to accompany me on a weekend retreat to a picturesque lakeside cabin had rung baldly ulterior, but I didn’t feel particularly awkward as fifth wheel. It simply wasn’t like that--we had all been friends for so long.

***

While everyone was arguing over the name of the social studies teacher who got in trouble for taking pictures of girls’ legs under their desks in seventh grade, I went out to the back porch. The wind coming off the lake was colder than I had packed for, but my nerves presented the sensation of cold to me mostly as an abstract idea rather than something imperative.

I leaned over the railing and watched how the moon played in the ripples of the black water, a dancing web of light, and tried to convince myself that the mathematical secrets of the universe were revealing themselves to me, in the way that the elements interacted as a network of impulses; moon, light, water, wind, etc. Oscillations and vibrations and feedback loops and whatever, all fully determined. I realized that I was quite drunk.

After a few minutes, Siobhan followed me outside.

“Dude, what are you doing out here?” she said.

“Isn’t this nice?” I said, and swept my hand over the lake, meaning everything.

“Yeah. Absolutely.”

She had two beers in her hand and gave me one. I drained the one that I had brought with me.

Siobhan worked for an investment bank downtown in some capacity that I would never understand, conjuring wealth out of three computer monitors at once. She had made more money in the first year out of college than I could ever hope to make in any year, doing anything. For my part, I had completed an internship at an indie record label that hadn’t turned into a job, sold a few book reviews to non-prestigious websites for two-digit checks, and did some work as a production assistant, getting coffee for bad actors on shows that nobody watched. Saved on my hard drive, I had written one-third of a novel based on the missing years of Jesus Christ that I was sure was quite terrible.

“Do you want to come back inside?” she said. “It’s cold out here.”

“Do you want to stay out here and huddle for warmth?” I said, playing it cheekily, which I knew that I could get away with even though it was fairly out of bounds. I had always had a bit of a thing for Siobhan, I should admit, which I felt bad about given my friendship with Ben but what can you do.

“The idea is to all have fun together,” she said.

I didn’t respond and we just stood there together for a moment, looking out over the water, even though there wasn’t much to look at in the dark. Out in the middle of the lake something jumped out and flopped over, a single little splash.

“Do you know that nobody knows what Jesus was up to from the age of twelve to thirty?” I said. “One minute he’s just a little kid following his dad around, next he’s a full-grown man out in the desert talking to a snake.”

I could tell by her face that she didn’t really know what to do with me, which was understandable.

“Come on, inside, you weirdo,” she said, and even grabbed my elbow.

Inside, things had been turned up a notch, cans abandoned for shot glasses, and I hustled to catch up. Eventually we dispensed with the glasses and just passed the bottle around, laughing at the contorted faces we made after taking swigs. We argued about bullshit for fun, ate from bags of pretzels. Eventually the playlist ended and the couples went to bed. I saw that there wereas still a few inches of vodka in one of the bottles so I tried to stay up by myself until it was gone, for completeness sake.

***

I looked up and realized that I hadn’t only looked up, but woken up. I was alone in the main room, and the skylights were still fully dark. The house was quiet except for the sound of the lake lapping against the deck outside.

There were many beds available in the house, but I just stretched out on the couch, pulled a crocheted blanket over me as best I could, and tried to go back to sleep before my hangover came fully into bloom. In my half-dreams, I watched people from my past walk into the room and speak in tongues towards my supine body.

After some time, I heard a sound from out on the gravel driveway through the door, which had been left open except for the screen. Something large moving around. Definitely not a dream. I heard it a second time.

I craned my neck up from the couch to see if anyone would appear, but nobody did, and then I heard the sound again, pushing through the gravel. I decided that I better get up and check quickly, otherwise I would just lay there and convince myself that it was a bear that was going to come in and kill us all, even though I thought I remembered someone saying that they didn’t get bears around here. I threw off the blanket and swung my feet to the floor.

There was a small closet overflowing with sports equipment by the door, and I grabbed a golf club to arm myself. I pushed through the door, turned onto the gravel, and found myself five feet away from a whitetail buck, taller than I was. I could tell at a glance that its antlers had more points than any of the racks hanging up inside; fourteen at least. It was huge in a way that felt more than physical; it was elemental, something I had no right to be so close to.

Instead of bolting, it stared right at me, unsurprised. I found myself to be frozen in place with the golf club held out in front of me like a pike. I didn’t know if I should be scared or not. The antler points looked murderous but I couldn’t remember ever hearing about someone being taken out by a deer.

Then I saw why it hadn’t run. Its right front leg was badly broken; the hoof dangled in the air, held on to the rest of the leg by only a tangle of bloody fur and flesh. It must have happened recently, maybe even that night. And now that I saw it, I smelled it.

“Jeez,” I said aloud, my breath condensing. “That’s not good.”

A cloud bank rolled away from over the moon and the deer was lit in the reflection coming off of the lake. It breathed laboriously, and flecks of moisture spumed from its mouth with each exhalation. Slowly, appearing for a moment almost animatronic, it looked out over the water, and then back at me. It seemed somehow inquisitive.

“What?” I said.

It remained statue-still for another few seconds and then, moving on three legs with an undignified awkwardness, it lurched down the waterline towards the boathouse. I stood there and watched it disappear into the woods. I tried to listen to it move through the brush but the sound was masked by the wind in the trees.

For a moment, I stood there in the odd solitude, and realized that I had just experienced a notable event. I am a special person and that was a special thing that happened for me and me only, I thought, and will never happen again, which was cool, even though it was sad. I peed against the side of the house and went back inside to get a glass of water.

***

We spent the morning earning health and wellness credits that we would be able to cash in later for more self-harm. The girls strapped their iPods to their upper arms and went for a long jog through the lakeside trails, while the males dragged a rusty bench press out from the garage into the sun in order to lift weights and work on our tans. Then we all went for a brief swim that we convinced ourselves was aerobically rewarding.

When the girls got back, sweaty and attractive, we piled with our coolers into the faster of the two boats, a sleek twenty-five foot sport boat with red racing stripes, and pushed off to go fuck around on the water. Kennedy found her father’s white captain’s hat (which he wore constantly when he was up at the cabin, under the guise of irony, although he clearly adored it) and cocked it rakishly on her brow over her large insectile sunglasses. She gunned the throttle as soon we were clear of the moorings, the engine roared, and the prow lifted tumescently out of the water as the boat took off.

Kennedy piloted us from the cabin’s notch of shoreline out to where the lake really opened up. There was a fair amount of traffic on the water, and she passed the other boats a bit too close, I thought. We lowered our beers and offered collegial waves when police boats trolled by. Paddleboats heavy with tourists (of course, we weren’t tourists) patrolled the shallow waters around the big hotel. Parasailers under colorful canopies moved silently through the sky a million miles away.

The weather was perfect, which we remarked on ceaselessly in that way that never bothers anyone caught in the trance of a beautiful day. It was hot enough to feel compelled to take your shirt off, but not oppressive, and even the bright noonday sun seemed somehow unthreatening. A few puffy clouds, so small-looking in the bowl of the sky, cast massive shadows that moved over the green and orange face of the mountains that ringed the lake.

“I love this day,” Siobhan said.

“What?” Kennedy yelled over the roar of the V-12.

“This day!”

Kennedy smiled and nodded. Simple ideas presented themselves to me: the maddening beauty of the female body, the indispensability of alcohol, the pleasure of maritime recreation, the absolute necessity of huge amounts of money.

We dropped anchor in a sheltered little area in between a small island and the shoreline and argued about the proper name for such a place. Isthmus? Lagoon?

Ben stood up on the prow and shotgunned a beer and threw the can into the water.

“Hey!” I said, and jumped in the water to fish it out. It floated away from me for a few strokes.

“Don’t be a shit,” I said when I hauled myself dripping back into the boat and threw the can at his feet with maybe a little too much force.

“You don’t be a fucking shit, dude,” he said. His voice had an edge to it that I recognized, and I realized what he had probably been doing on his four or five trips down into the cabin.

“Oh yeah, you litter, you’re cool,” I said. I didn’t know why I was so mad.

“Are you being serious right now?” he said. “It’s a can.”

“It’s not a can. I mean it is—but it’s the principle.”

“What are you, Smoky the fucking Bear?”

“Guys, stop it,” Kennedy said. “This is my favorite place. I don’t want anyone to fight. Everyone’s supposed to have a nice time.”

“We’re not fighting,” Ben said. He looked at me. Kennedy was too. And Siobhan.

“Yeah, no, I’m fine,” I said.

Ben went to the bow of the boat and jackknifed into the water.

“Smokey the Bear never said anything about littering,” I said aloud, to nobody.

***

The sun went down. We had all burned the fuck out of ourselves, but that was part of the whole deal. We ordered pizzas from town. Coolers were re-armed.

Siobhan and I lay in the hammocks on the deck with a case of beers between us. She had one foot hanging off of her hammock so that she could rock herself. A moment ago the others had been out here too but something had carried them inside, and now I enjoyed their warm absence-but-nearness, listening to their muffled conversation and the clinking of glass from the kitchen, in an adjacent universe. I was looking up at the stars, and I assumed that she was too. It never gets old for me, how bright the night sky is the further you get away from people.

“Stars are crazy,” Siobhan said upwards into the night, after who knows how long.

“I know, right?” I said.

She was silent but after another minute she hit me with this:

“Do you ever find it comforting to know that you’re going to die?”

This meant that she was in a recognizable stage of her drunkenness.

“Only when I’m screwing up particularly bad,” I said.

“I said that to Ben once and he said I was being morbid. I didn’t mean it like that, though. It’s just like, when I get up here, in nature and stuff, I’m more okay with being a teeny tiny little thing.”

“Yeah,” I said, and then, after a silence. “Do you think Ben does too much coke?”

Siobhan looked at me to speak but then Kennedy leaned her face against the screen door with a tray in her hands.

“Who ordered the tequilas? We found my Mom’s. The good stuff.”

Inside, she had already set up a little bowl of salt and beautiful sliced-up limes.

I proceeded to overdo it pretty bad, even though I caught myself while I was doing it. I had a moment where I wondered, is this fun?

I decided that it was.

***

My first thought when my eyes opened was “oh no,” because I had some grainy memory of trying to kiss Siobhan, but there was a good chance that that had been a dream. Anyway I realized that the circumstances were probably such that I wouldn’t have to bring it up or apologize to anyone, and I calmed back down. Plausible self-deniability, the gift of the blackout, was intact.

I had, it appeared, chosen the hammock as my bed, and my watch said five am, which is right in the middle of the window that my body tends to reboot itself after that kind of abuse. It was cold as hell and I was shivering. My tongue knocked around in my mouth like a stone and I desperately had to pee.

I laid my penis over the railing of the deck and released a tributary stream down into the lake. High up on the dark mountainside above the opposite shore there were three different campfires burning, miles apart, and I imagined a little scene for each of them: Earthy newlyweds sleep intertwined under an angled blue tarp, rise occasionally to stoke the flames. A father starts a fire under a skillet for breakfast, ham and eggs, coffee in a tin pot, and watches his two sons asleep in matching super-hero sleeping bags. Iroquois sitting silently and looking down scornfully at me from four hundred years ago, when this land was still theirs and they had some beautiful name for it, I’m sure.

The duration of my urination began to impress me, but I felt that if I didn’t sit back down I was going to boot, so I cut it off early and went inside. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that hammocks are bad for the spins.

Ben was sleeping on one of the couches. I lay down on the other and tried to go back to sleep, but it was difficult. My mind had awoken and decided that it would rather attempt to pessimistically predict the course of the rest of my life.

***

I ducked and dropped my beer from my non-pitching hand because I thought the Wiffle ball was coming right for me, but it never hit an apex. It just stayed on a straight line over my head, still going upwards.

“Should I call in the reliever?” Corey yelled to me from his one-man outfield, as he watched the ball sail over the boathouse and into the trees.

“Still got it,” said Ben, and passed the bat to Siobhan as he began his trot around our makeshift bases (two tennis rackets and a Mets cap).

Corey jogged over to where the ball had disappeared. He paused before the treeline, staring, and then shouted to us. He had found something.

***

The buck was only a yard or two into the brush. It lay with its legs folded under itself, like an animal at the manger in Bethlehem, only with the addition of a festering wound. It had gotten worse, of course. The hoof had now completely fallen away, and the rot had moved up almost to the shoulder. I couldn’t tell if its bleating was a normal deer sound, or something more plaintive.

“Wow,” said Ben. “Look at that. How many points? Twelve?”

“It’ll die with its leg like that,” said Corey.

“No shit,” said Ben.

The girls caught up and quickly assessed the situation. Kennedy started to cry immediately.

“Do you really have to kill it?” asked Siobhan.

“Well, none of us had said that yet, honey,” said Ben.

***

One of Kennedy’s uncles had taken the rifles away on a hunting trip and failed to return them, and so the only weapon left on the rack above the fireplace was an old over-under shotgun. Shells were right there on the mantle, which was probably unwise.

When we got back to the buck (without Kennedy and Siobhan, who in keeping with the Eisenhower-era aesthetic of the cabin were happy to agree that this was a man’s task), it had dragged itself a few feet deeper into the brush. It sensed our nearness and resumed its bleating as we approached.

“I think I’ve got to stop pretending that this doesn’t bother me,” said Corey.

“He’s in a lot of pain, Corey,” I said.

“I’m not against it in principle. I just think I’ll go stand over there, if that’s okay. Don’t tell Kennedy.”

Ben and I stood regarding the animal. He was holding the gun.

“Sad,” he said, standing still, looking at it. I had the thought that he was trying to get something out of this, which I didn’t like.

“Yeah. Here, I’ll do it,” I said, and took the gun from his hands. As I walked towards the buck I realized that maybe I shouldn’t be buzzed for this, but now I was moving as if on rails.

The buck tried to stand as I got closer but only made it a few inches off the ground before falling back down. From a foot away, I leveled the barrel at its head and pulled the trigger. An invisible fist-sized ball of pure violence stove in the skull and bits of matter flew outwards and upwards, some of which landed on me. The report came back twice from the far shore of the lake. The buck fell onto its side and spasmed a few times, like a dog running in a dream, and then began to curl in on itself.

“Fuuuck,” Ben said, “That was loud.”

Corey walked back around from behind the boathouse and looked at the animal, which kicked once more, and then was still.

Ben leaned over and touched the antlers, shook them slightly like one tests a ladder before climbing it. “What’s the morality of taking the antlers, when it just fell into our laps like this?” he said.

***

Kennedy made a phone call to some neighbors who lived up here year-round, and within the hour we were sitting at the kitchen table and watching through the bay window as two men gutted the buck. She had offered them the antlers, hide, and meat--so basically everything-- if they would just get it out of the yard. The amount of viscera that they lifted out, like a magic trick, bloody entrails dangling like festoons, was unbelievable. They loaded the carcass into the back of their pick-up truck and drove off, honking twice in farewell.

“To Bucky,” Ben said, lifting his Bloody Mary, “May he frolic forever in deer heaven.”

“Stop it!” Siobhan said, laughing.

“Poor guy got totally JFK’d,” Ben continued.

I made more Bloody Marys.

***

There was only one other time that I had ever killed anything larger than a bug. My freshman year of college, I had seen a small yellow bird with a black stripe slowly flopping over on the sidewalk, clearly dying, and in a fleeting moment of what I considered manfully clear-eyed assessment of the bird’s fate, I crushed it under my boot heel as an act of mercy. I couldn’t believe how little resistance its body gave, like an empty eggshell. I felt good about my decision for all of about two minutes and then got back to my dorm room and fell immediately into a deep depression, not so much upset with what I had done but with the way that things were and would be forever. I also probably just really missed home.

And now I had killed a big warm mammal. I was convinced that I could still smell something about it, either the rot from the leg wound or the miasma that sprang from the wound that I gave it, even after I took my first real shower in 48 hours and made sure to get some soap up my nostrils. The image of the buck spasming, in particular, kept coming back to me. I was amazed by how much a thing could move, how long it took a life to admit that it was truly time to go, even after its brains were blown out.

***

Later, when I found a moment to get her alone, I pulled Siobhan into the butler’s pantry that joined the kitchen to the main room.

“I want to tell you something.”

“Okaaayyy,” Siobhan said, looking weirded out.

“That deer? Buck, I mean. I saw it last night. It was out on the gravel and it woke me up and I went out and it was just standing there, looking at me.”

“What? Why are you telling me this now?”

“Don’t you think that’s weird?”

“I guess. Not really. You saw the same deer twice. Its leg was broken. It’s not like it was going anywhere.”

I realized that she was probably right. What was I even trying to say?

I leaned in to kiss her. She kissed me back for one half second, I was sure of it, but then pushed me away.

“You need to stop with this,” she said.

***

Later, around midnight, I found myself in the lake. There was only a slight chop on the surface but I could feel with my legs that more complicated hydrodynamics were happening underneath, swirls of warm and cool. The moon was full and I had cans of beer in both pockets of my swim trunks. The lake bottom was covered in rocks, or not rocks really but huge boulders, so that finding and keeping purchase with your feet on the peak or sharp edge of the next hidden enormity required balance and taxed the muscles of the core. Fifty yards behind me, my friends stood on the porch around the grill, reheating some of the burgers from hours before. Occasionally a boat would pass by, its running lights like spirits chasing each other across the water, and when I submerged my head I could hear the sound of the their propellers from incredible distances, a throaty hum that seemed to come from everywhere.

I had made my way out to where I could just barely stand with my head above water on one particular boulder, the moon-lit chop slapping my upturned face. Beyond this point my toes felt nothing but cold current and I imagined that it dropped down steeply to a billion feet.

I’ll be honest: I was looking for some kind of metaphor. Something I could write about or turn into art. And why not? All the elements were there: the darkness both above and below me, the cold, the solitude, the Majesty of the Great Outdoors, the moon that could be described, depending on your mood, as doleful or ominous or just big. It was the perfect setting to have a deep thought and just think the shit out of it, to reinforce my own cherished notion that I was the kind of person for whom these settings are important and deeply informative, who can mine them bare. And I had killed something! I should have at least been feeling some feelings about that.

Nothing happened. I just stood there getting colder, my fingers pruning, my friends calling to me with rising concern to come back in. But I could have stayed in there all night; I could have lived my whole life in there.

Of course, Kennedy would soon shatter Corey’s heart by leaving him for someone she had met while coaching at a lacrosse camp. Of course, I would sleep with Siobhan and regret it deeply, even though we’d get away with it. Of course we would never again return to the cabin, and of course we were, right then, standing at the end of things. At the time, though, it felt like a beginning, and it didn’t seem at all ridiculous to hope that everything would work out just fine.