The Shortcut

by Holly H. Jones

Jeff—or Jeffrey, as his father called him, and Jeffers, as he wished people called him—was fourteen. He was young for tenth grade, but smart and taller than most boys in his class. His father wanted him to play sports or at least, for God’s sake, get a job and not spend every minute playing guitar. Jeff and his father used to go fishing on the weekends, but those days were long gone. Now his father spent weekends watching football with Jeff’s big brother or, in the off-season, working.

“What kind of boy hates playing ball?” his father asked Jeff’s mother on Labor Day, as if Jeff were not on the same patio eating lunch. Sylvie continued organizing her recipes without responding. It was her latest project. As long as Jeff could remember, his still-pretty mother, whose hands trembled by evening, had projects underway. “No one likes a fancy-pants. Bobby never sat home,” his father next said.

Jeff’s older brother, Bobby, still lived at home and took classes at the community college. Bobby had broken two state records in high school football, and their father just knew he could land an assistant coaching job at the school if he played his cards right. “What kind of tough guy does Dad think he is? I’m already almost as tall as him,” Jeff had later said to his friends, laughing in a deep-throated way that burned his throat. He had begun forcing his voice lower after a friend said he sounded gay.

After Labor Day, Jeff started accompanying Bobby to the games, much to his father’s delight. But Jeff didn’t love the games so much as the bands, the halftime shows, and, most of all, roaming the stands and beyond with his friends. Another world existed at the parking lot edge, where musicians and locals from the Juke ’n Jive bar across the highway hung out. The boys bought bags of boiled peanuts off an old guy who kept his cart on that same stadium lot edge, so close to the road that his cart’s umbrella whipped and flapped every time the eighteen-wheelers buzzed by. They nursed the peanuts and Coca-Cola in green bottles, the kind Jeff’s mother once collected, while staring at the crowd.

In late September, Jeff and his friend Eric approached three blondes. These girls, with their long, iron-straightened hair and bodies so thin the curves of their hip bones showed above the waist of their low jeans, were traveling with the opening act. Jeff said San Francisco rocked, despite having never been west of Raleigh. Eric tried to make them promise to try the cheesesteaks in New York, confusing it with Philadelphia. The girls soon drifted away, leaving them to eavesdrop on the musicians’ conversations, which was what Jeff wanted anyway. He knew he should find girls with glossed lips, hipbones still summertime-tan, and flat bellies hot. Listening to the band talk interested him more.

A band crewman approached, offering Jeff and Eric some weed. Eric stepped back, his loafers slipping on the gravel. Jeff said, “Sure, why not?”

In the cluster of men smoking, a few asked Jeff about his music. No one ever asks me that, he thought as he took a hit of weed. Ever. So he talked about his guitar playing, his plans, and his crazy dad’s inability to grasp the power of music like there was no tomorrow. When Eric called out that the game was ending, Jeff let one of the band members take him by the arm to guide him back.

At the circle’s edge stood a man fiddling with his iPhone. The man wore sunglasses with lenses tinted pitch black, and Jeff wondered how he had missed this oddball. The man’s mouth stretched into a grin. “Someone’s comin’ after you,” he said, chuckling as Jeff hurried on.

Bobby was waiting at the car with a baton twirler who needed a ride home. Jeff ended up in the back with all the dirty gym gear that had piled up since their mom last took it out. The dank smell of sweaty shirts and shorts didn’t nauseate him as it usually did, though. His mind whirled from the weed and the crowd. His elbow tingled where it had been held. He peered out the rear window as Bobby drove toward the parking lot exit and, through the spray of gravel, saw the Christmas tree lights strung from the Juke ’n Jive’s porch beams. He pressed a hand to the window and grinned.

* * *

Saturdays, Jeff wandered the mall with his friends, who loved flirting with girls the way they used to love fishing. A few times, he sensed a man watching him and remembered the fun of talking at the stadium parking lot edge with other men. The air itself came alive at those moments. But when Jeff turned toward the stare, only the backs of heads faced him. Then he tried to forget how excited he had felt. His friends would call him strange if they knew. He threw himself into helping them hook up, and claimed their occasional victories as his own over Sunday breakfast with his father.

* * *

The evening of Homecoming, Jeff wanted to stay home. Not because he hadn’t had fun at the last four games, and not because Eric and the others wouldn’t be there. But as he looked for his always-missing wallet, Jeff started to feel funny about going. It was his parents’ wedding anniversary, and just a few years ago, all four of them would have celebrated together and shared a big cake his dad, his brother, and he had made before Jeff’s parents went out dancing, leaving the boys with a babysitter. Everything was different now, from his dad’s mood to his mom’s trembling hands to his own thinking about what their marriage might really be like, but, for one night, he wanted to turn the clock back for them all.

He asked if they could all stay home and cook, but his father insisted he stick with the plan. He and Jeff’s mom had dinner reservations, and was Jeff ever going to throw away that god-awful shirt he was wearing? His mother spent her time shopping for good clothes, and he’d spent years working to afford those clothes along with the fancy school, so why not go find one of those shirts? Jeff ran upstairs without a word and pulled on a sweater his mother had bought him that fall. He came back down two stairs at a time, still wearing his favorite T-shirt underneath. He kissed his mother’s cheek. She slipped what sounded like a few bills in his pocket. His father told him to have fun. Jeff rolled his eyes.

Bobby reversed his Mazda out of the driveway, turning the car onto the street with a ba-bump as they cleared the lip at the driveway edge. Jeff waved at his parents, and his mother waved back with one hand while slipping the other around his father’s arm. Jeff thought he could detect the tremor in her hands even as they grew into smaller specks of white under the porch light. His father’s sharp cheekbones looked skeletal. Jeff touched the same prominent lines on his own cheeks and raised his hand again.

While Bobby talked on his cell phone, Jeff tweaked the settings on Bobby’s boom box until he found his favorite old-school rock station. Bobby only let Jeff touch it when he wasn’t paying attention. At the last traffic light before reaching the stadium, Bobby pointed his cell phone at the radio. “That music sucks,” he told Jeff. “Pick another station. Any station.”

“Light’s green,” Jeff replied.

Bobby pressed on the gas pedal harder than necessary, and then they were busy looking for a space in the stadium’s full and poorly lit lot. “Guess it’ll have to be the freak zone for us,” Bobby said as he angled his car into a half-space so close to a van that he had to climb out on Jeff’s side.

Jeff saw the boiled-peanut vendor selling bags to musicians one row over and told his brother, “This isn’t a freak zone.”

“Loan me your phone, would you?” Bobby replied. “Mine just ran out of juice.” Jeff handed it over without a word.

* * *

At halftime Jeff realized he’d left his wallet in Bobby’s car. He reached into his pocket for the bills his mother had slipped him and saw it was a folded-over note. She did that when she thought he needed cheering up. He stuffed it back in his pocket, and let his friends buy him a Coke while they were buying for the junior varsity cheerleaders. One, a redhead with braids, asked Jeff about his favorite musicians, but he couldn’t stop worrying that maybe he’d dropped his wallet, along with the emergency Visa his father had just given him, beside the car, rather than leaving them inside. He went in search of his brother, talking on Jeff’s cell phone and happy to hand over the keys if Jeff would just leave him alone for once. Waving good-bye to the girl and his friends, Jeff ran back to the parking lot.

The van was still parked inches from Bobby’s driver’s side door, and now an old-school red convertible was parked to its right. Jeff found his wallet in the space between the passenger’s side seat and door and locked the car back up. Then he took in the stillness around him and, for a moment, imagined it to be the stillness of his home, those now-rare nights his parents cooked together downstairs and talked in low, happy tones. His friends wouldn’t miss him for a while. He could chill out in Bobby’s car a few minutes.

He slid into the passenger’s side seat, keeping the door open to air out the car. On Bobby’s boom box, his favorite station played an old Allman Brothers song. Jeff’s mother sang bits of their songs when his father wasn’t around, and Jeff thought they were all right. He kept the car’s overhead light on as he listened, thinking he’d read his mom’s note before returning to the game. The guitarist moved into a seriously complex riff and Jeff closed his eyes to better appreciate the sounds sliding and crashing against each other before resolving into something so weird-sounding but right.

The deejay announced that the next hour was going to an album everyone better love—Lynyrd Skynyrd’s One More from the Road. Eyes still closed as the music played, Jeff didn’t register the parking lot gravel crunching as anything more than music until the sound filled his ears. He opened his eyes and looked behind him.

A tall man with sunglasses sauntered up the space between the cars. He came from the direction of the lot’s edge, where the musicians and locals hung out. Maybe, Jeff thought, that’s why he’s snapping his fingers to some beat completely off from Skynyrd’s “Travellin’ Man.” The man caught Jeff’s eye and called out a friendly “Hey,” like they knew each other. Then Jeff remembered seeing him outside the Juke ’n Jive. What had the man said?

Jeff glanced down at Bobby’s keychain on the floorboard. He rolled it back and forth with his foot. Cla-clink, cla-clink. The guy almost beside him now was dressed in black pants and a loose, dark sweater Bobby was still not cool enough to wear, even though he was only a year or so younger than this guy. He wore a baseball cap in what Jeff thought were the opposing team’s colors. Jeff thought his wearing sunglasses at night was strange, but it was too late to shut the car door without looking scared.

“Well, it’s about time you got here. Time’s aflyin’,” the guy said. He pressed a hand to the side of the red convertible, cocked his head. “Like wind through trees.”

“I beg your pardon?” Jeff said. He sounded like a girl and so changed his tone. “The only thing I see flyin’ is your team out of the parking lot after we finish them off.”

“Yeah? Well, we can place a bet if you’re of a mind to,” the guy said. “But I’m glad you finally arrived, no matter who wins. Waitin’ on a friend’s no fun.” He grinned.

“You’re crazy,” Jeff said, embarrassed because his cheeks flushed. Tongue-tied, he squinted at the convertible. A month of Sundays had passed since it had been washed. He could even make out the words Go Cougars on the dusty surface. “You have trouble keeping your teams straight? We’re playing the Colts tonight, not the Cougars.”

“Maybe you could help me correct that.”

“Maybe.” Jeff giggled, not knowing what to do. “Sure, maybe.”

The guy tipped his head back and laughed, a deep, sharp sound that surprised Jeff. As the guy’s baseball cap slipped back, Jeff saw that his hairline receded awfully far. He nudged the car keys on the floorboard again. Cla-clink.

“You’re right,” the guy said. “But help me fix the spelling, would you? My friend A.J. ain’t worth a damn.” Now the guy rapped on the convertible’s driver’s side window. “You hear that, man? Wake up! You’ve got to work on your spelling.”

A man with close-cut blond hair and earphone cords running down the side of his neck rose up in the passenger’s side seat. Jeff wondered how long this A.J. had been there. He felt his smile slipping. “It’s not just spelling,” Jeff said. “You’ve got the wrong team.”

“And A.J. messed things up on his side too, dust-painting. Help me, would you? You could even draw some new stuff for us,” the guy said. A red light flashed in his hand. “You like my iPhone? It plays games. Want to check it out?”

“No, I’ve got one.” Jeff looked past the guy to A.J. and thought about his phone, in his brother’s hands. “I need to get back. It’s probably fourth quarter by now.”

“And the Colts are being crucified, so why bother? Allow me to introduce myself, since you clearly won’t head over to the Juke ’n Jive otherwise. Marshall White would be my name. My other special friend, as you already know, is A.J.”

“A.J. what?”

Marshall White paused. “Axel.”

“Free Bird,” Jeff’s favorite, started. He’d return to the game when it ended.

“So, you ready?” Marshall White said. “The band’s starting.”

“Yeah, right,” Jeff said.

“Why not?” Marshall White asked. He turned, as if he heard something in the trees behind them. Jeff saw that his neck had a corded look of strength, though his scarecrow frame looked like it could blow away on the next fall wind. “Why not?”

“’Cause they won’t let me in. I’m too young. And it’s not like I even know you.”

“But you do, Jeff. And now you can start remembering this is our night to head over to Juke ’n Jive, just like you wanted.”

“I didn’t tell you my name was Jeff.”

Marshall White took another two steps toward Jeff, wobbled, and steadied himself. “A.J. and I could’ve gone anywhere to hear music, but we came here for our friend Jeff.”

“Don’t call me that,” Jeff said. “You don’t know anything.”

“Aw, sure I do. I know your friend Eric. I know Mike Taylor too. He loves boiled peanuts and has a crush the size of Texas on Twyla, even though she gives you candy bags, not him. I know you don’t really like her. And I know why.”

Jeff’s cheeks started to burn. He wanted to be home, with his feet propped up on his bed and shoes dirtying the bedspread and driving his mother crazy. On the radio, “Free Bird” moved into a guitar riff. Jeff lifted his arm from his lap. It had fallen asleep. He shook it. When it no longer felt like a million needles poking into his skin, he grabbed the keys.

“You know me too,” Marshall White said. “Don’t you?”

Jeff put his hand back down. “Yeah, I remember seeing you at the Juke ’n Jive.”

“Now we’re back on track!” Marshall White slid off his glasses then, revealing red-rimmed, bright eyes. “Let’s go then. It’ll take us three minutes tops to get over there, cutting through the woods.”

Jeff breathed in the smells of Bobby’s Old Spice aftershave, cold French fries, and, in the collar of his sweater, his mom’s laundry detergent. He turned and squinted through the glass, but couldn’t see the fluttering umbrella of the peanut stand. The vendor had called it an early night. When he turned back, Marshall White was taking another step toward him. He froze, mid-step. Jeff saw the words on his baseball cap. NY Giants.

“You’re not from around here,” Jeff said.

“Sure I am. Now stop being such a pain in the you-know-what and come on.”

“Homecoming game—it’s a big deal for my brother and me,” Jeff said. He frowned, like he imagined his father doing. “Music isn’t all I’m about.”

“I understand what you’re about, even when you’re ornery.” Marshall White stepped into the floodlight’s nimbus. Not even the length of Jeff’s and his father’s poles, laid to dry side by side like when the two still went fishing together, separated them now. Jeff saw that his hands bore scars, and the iPhone wasn’t an iPhone at all. It was just some piece of taped-up, blinking junk.

“Name the teams playing tonight,” Jeff said.

“I came for the music, like you, not the game.”

“How old are you?”

Marshall White smiled and his face spread into a map of wrinkles, like Jeff’s father was starting to have. Jeff’s stomach flip-flopped and he pulled his leg into the car. Then he reached for the keys on the floorboard.

“Now hold on. I haven’t even answered your question and you’re reaching down for your Cracker Jack candy, or maybe some of your big brother’s CDs. But A.J. has at least a hundred CDs, and he’ll share. Right, A.J.? You’re a sharing soul, aren’t you?”

A.J. turned toward them. The right side of his face was divided in two—one half smooth and the other burned into a mess of skin. Jeff’s stomach began to ache.

“You’d better go on to the Juke ’n Jive,” Jeff said. His voice cracked.

“And leave you behind?” Marshall White asked, scratching his head. Jeff saw that the elbow of his sweater was more hole than fabric, his pants more mud-stain than material, that everything, including the deejay who had just announced the sixth track, was more absent than real. Then Marshall White crooned, “I don’t think my friend understands, no no, that A.J. and M.W. came all this way, oh, oh, for him. And we can’t leave without him, wouldn’t want to, refuse to do so just because he’s being a silly little ninny scared of hearing some live music.” He held out a hand and gestured for Jeff to step out of the car.

Jeff stared at the individual curled fingers, every knuckle scarred or scabbed. “My brother’s coming back any second. We always leave before the end and— ”

“I’ve never seen your brother come back early. Especially not when he’s hoping to score with that cheerleader you handed him. Not that you wanted her anyway, right?”

“How do you know any of this?” Jeff half-shouted.

“I’m a Juke ’n Jive regular, and since you became a regular ’round here and my personal favorite, I made a point to learn about you. You’re my partner for the evening’s fun.” The words hung in the small amount of air, of space, between them. “I’ve got the whole thing planned out, beginning with your getting out of the car. We’re going to take the shortcut through the woods to where we can hear the music close up.”

“I’m going back to the game!” Jeff scooted himself onto the center console and then glanced toward the driver’s side door he was about to open and fall out of. There wasn’t enough space between the car and the van parked beside it. No way he could get out without banging up Bobby’s car. That still mattered—Bobby’s not killing him for banging up the door.

Marshall White took another step, now only the length of one fishing pole, not Jeff’s and his father’s together away. Jeff jerked his head up and said, “Come any closer and I’ll blow this horn so someone will hear it, swear to God.”

“What the—don’t you go doing anything like that, Jeff! We’re buddies. No one’s going to hurt you anytime soon. How ’bout I make you two promises. You listening?”

Jeff stared at the keys on the floorboard and then at the still-open door beside him.

“I promise you’ll have a sweet time later—that’s numero uno. And the second promise is that I will not come any closer, as long as you don’t honk the horn. Deal?”

Jeff shifted his weight forward. Sweat held his tie-dyed shirt to his back.

“I said, deal? Or do I have to help you out of the car right now, so help me God?”

Jeff stared at his shaking hands, thinking that would calm him and give him room to figure things out. But his cuticles were ragged, and he remembered his mother telling him that morning, over French toast he could smell still, he needed to take better care of his hands if he wanted to play guitar. His mind blanked. “My brother’s coming back real soon.” Had he already said that?

“Then come on out of the car. You don’t want us here when he comes back.”

“You want me to cut the tires?” It was A.J. His words tumbled out one on top of the other and he stared past them both, as if watching those words fly away.

“Hell and brimfire, no, A.J.! Where are your manners?” Marshall White asked.

“You’re crazy.” Jeff tried to swallow. He would scream, he knew, if A.J. didn’t turn away now, if he didn’t take back the threat of slicing tires.

“Crazy would be you not sticking to your promise to join us for some music.”

“I never promised that! I promised—”

“’Cause if you don’t keep your word, I’d have to pay a visit to your nice family. You don’t want me to sweep them up, carry them away in my big red balloon of a convertible, but I’d have to if you won’t come along with me,” Marshall White said.

“When you going to let me cut those tires?” A.J. asked.

Each word came out slowly, hanging in the night like a bubble, Jeff thought in a panic. Because what kind of man spoke in bubbles, as if he weren’t in this parking lot or in the convertible that Jeff now saw was dented every which way? And what kind of man would know so much about his family? Then he remembered the night he’d talked about them, complained about his father, and loved that those men listened so attentively. “You’re making it up!” he said anyway.

“I make up nothing, buddy, because I know everything about my friends, like you. That’s what friends are for, that’s the way love goes between friends and that’s all I’m asking of you,” Marshall White said in a singsong way like he was speaking in lyrics. But Jeff didn’t recognize them. “And you’re going to come out of that car so I can be a best friend to you and you don’t have to worry no more about your folks and that jealous no-athlete brother of yours ’cause you’ll have saved them.” He hoisted his jeans up to hipbones skeletal white and knobbier than those of the tanned girls Jeff and Eric had talked to once upon a very faraway time.

“What do you want?” Jeff whispered.

“I want you to let me show you how nice it can be down by the riverbank while groovy music is being made, and how special it can be with a friend.”

Jeff felt the bottom of his brother’s car fall out beneath him. In a second of silence before Marshall White opened his mouth to singsong again, he heard the deejay thank everyone for listening to the show. The voice from the boom box pierced him like a needle.

He reached for the keys on the floorboard and jumped into the driver’s seat. He gasped and then half-yelped as he seized the door handle in his left hand and fumbled to jam the car key into the ignition with his right hand. He heard, more than saw, the door open as he yanked on the handle. The keys scraped against the ignition slot and then the steering column as he tried again and again to fit the right key in. His breath came faster and faster, and his eyes shut against what he now felt was absolutely certain. Even as he smelled a wad of chewed gum on the ground beside his brother’s car, Jeff knew he couldn’t start the car or pour himself out the door. Not because he worried about scratching Bobby’s car or because he couldn’t fit because he saw now he could, but because he wouldn’t get very far anyway without Marshall White catching him. Just like his brother would never get very far in sports, or his mother, hands always shaking, with her projects. Jeff let go of the door handle and covered his face with his left hand. He expected tears to fall like they hadn’t since his dog died three years before, but only a few slid down his face. What came instead were whimpers that embarrassed him. Finally he could not even hear himself.

“Everything’s going to be all right now, buddy,” Marshall White said, still in the same place he had been while Jeff was falling away from everything he had once understood about Friday nights. “Just close that door so you don’t let any bugs in, okay?”

Jeff didn’t lower his hand from his face.

“Come on. We’re friends, and friends help each other. Close the door.”

Jeff pulled the driver’s side door shut. He curled his shoulders forward, away from the clammy tie-dyed shirt that stuck to his skin. He bent his head and smelled the detergent his mother always used. Don’t think about that, he ordered himself. Think about keeping her safe.

“Okay then, you’ve saved your brother’s car from the bugs and you’re saving your family from everything else because you’re a good guy and a great buddy. Now slide on across the center console—careful with that parking brake—and come on out.”

Jeff bumped his head into the overhead light. He could see his head from above, with its big ears his dad once swore the rest of him would grow into. The boy Jeff saw in the car did not lift a hand to his head to soften the blow. This boy sank into the passenger seat. I have to wake up, Jeff told himself. I must wake up.

Jeff settled his feet into the passenger’s seat floorboard, heard the crumpling sound in his pants pocket, and touched his mother’s note, the one she’d written after he got upset with his father. He could not recall why they had argued. And Jeff knew that he would not get the chance to read his mother’s note.

“Step out of the car,” Marshall White said. “The second show’s starting soon.”

Jeff looked at the gravel and thought about his mother’s trembling hands. He stared at his feet, in loafers bought that summer and already too small, and watched them swing across and onto the gravel. His feet touched down and he wondered if he would float away once he pushed the rest of his body out of Bobby’s car.

“There you go now,” Marshall White said. Then, “A.J., damn it, put that down!” Then he spoke to Jeff again. “He’s such a silly, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Jeff pushed himself out of the car and hesitated, realizing he could no longer smell the dirty clothes and French fries of his brother’s car. Marshall White lifted one arm, ready to clap it on Jeff’s shoulder and steer him away. He smiled. “My best friend in all of Kentucky,” he said.

Jeff walked the last step he would take without Marshall White’s arm guiding him, even though they weren’t in Kentucky or anywhere Jeff had ever seen before this night. Soon he would walk into woods he had never seen up close before either, on a shortcut to a new place. For that last moment, though, Jeff stared at the scraggly shapes of trees just beginning to lose their leaves and the shadows in between them that wound around to a riverbank. He tried to tell himself that this was nothing but a patch of woods, just like the one his father used to lead him through on the way to their favorite fishing hole. Like the one his father, mother, and brother would still be able to enjoy, because of him.

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