“Drop Zone Summer” by Nick Fuller Googins

Two weeks have passed since Cotter’s fall from the radio tower. His girlfriend, Liv, sparks with flashes of her former, easygoing self, remaining upbeat for customers and their tips, but she’s not fooling anyone. She’s most of all not fooling Osman. Osman watches her trot in from the landing area, grinning, Evel Knievel jumpsuit unzipped, sleeves knotted at the waist. She drops off her used parachute—Purple #3—and high-fives her next customer, a barrel-bodied guy wearing cargo shorts and a Phi Kappa Sigma t-shirt. Osman gathers the heap of purple nylon and dumps it in his section of the packing floor.

Osman packs parachutes for SkyHigh Maine. Liv jumps. That she only jumps with purple parachutes isn’t as superstitious as it sounds. The three purple rigs happen to be SkyHigh’s newest. Liv says they handle well in strong winds. Janice, SkyHigh’s owner, pays a flat rate of ten dollars per packed parachute. Osman finds that the new purple ones take longer. The stiff nylon is abrasive, unforgiving. He doesn’t mind spending the extra time.

This is Osman’s first summer packing. Liv got him the job. They are friends from Bates (“comrades,” they say, half-kidding). Liv was the charismatic, tanned-legged senior leader of the Global Justice Project, that coalition of anti-capitalist undergrads that held teach-ins, dropped banners, kicked military recruiters off campus. Osman was the wide-eyed freshman relieved to find one group in all of Great White Maine that let him be something other than Somali. Liv pitched SkyHigh on the drive to a rally at the Bath naval yards—for too many summers she’d wanted to organize the Haitian workers in the blueberry fields around SkyHigh’s drop zone. Osman was a natural, she said. Super chill. Everyone liked him. They could organize together, in their spare time. What did he think? Osman thought his internship with a socially responsible mutual fund in Portland suddenly stank of liberal hypocrisy and tedium. A week after finals he was on the packing floor for day one of training, learning from Cotter how to fold 400 square feet of nylon into a pack the size of a duffle.

It’s late August now, the final surge of tourist season. Osman and Liv have not organized the migrant workers. They have not grown intimate, working and living hip-to-hip. There has been no summertime leftist fling. The problem, of course, was Cotter. Still is Cotter. Fourteen days comatose in a hospital bed two hours away and his presence only grows stronger. Liv will disappear into her Airstream after work or drive to Maine Medical. Osman will lie awake in his tent, replaying the accident. He and Liv haven’t spoken—really spoken—in days. Broken femur, shattered arm, ruptured eardrums, fractured vertebrae. Osman has yet to visit.

Outside the plane lands and swings a U-turn on the tarmac. Liv chats up Phi Kappa Sigma with her usual dumb line, “Ready to get high?” The other packers work alongside Osman, kneeling before their billows of fabric, completing their crisp, precise folds. Carabineers clink against buckles. Janice’s voice crackles over the loudspeaker: “Load four, this is your three minute call. Prepare to cross the runway.”

Osman used to love these busy rushes. Work hard, break for lunch, hop in the plane, jump. Skydiving has presented itself as the one unexpected gift of an otherwise reluctant summer. The thrill has gripped him entirely. Once he completes his 500 solo jumps he will become America’s first Somali Bantu tandem instructor. That there’s never before been a Somali skydiving instructor is the single deepest source of shame among the refugee community, he tells people. Osman has a talent for keeping a straight face.

“Load four, cross the runway.”

Liv whoops—“Time to get high, bro!”—and leads Phi Kappa Sigma outside.

Osman pictures them sifting through the clouds, whooping and hollering and harnessed tightly together, Liv and this stranger. Nothing about it feels fair. None of this is right.

*     *     *

Osman starts on Purple #3. He sets down the empty pack, walks the mound of nylon and splayed line to the other end of the room, then backtracks, snaking the line through his hands to straighten it. To pack a parachute it must first be laid out delicately, made to resemble what Osman thinks of as one of those long-tentacled jellyfish. He slings the thick bundle of lines over a shoulder and organizes the canopy, pulling out the folds in broad sweeps, the parachute cocooning him. Then comes the arrangement: slapping and cutting the pleats of the folds, quartering the slider. The tiny, detailed tucks. Watching others run the steps, Osman sees a matador swooping out of harm’s way. A butterfly in a chrysalis, stretching its wings. Preforming the actions himself, he works on autopilot, loses himself in the sharp swish of fabric, the hot smell of nylon. Rehearses what he needs to say to Liv before summer’s end. What he should tell her about Cotter, but won’t. What he knows he can’t.

Osman was at the radio tower when it happened. Cotter had invited him. They BASE jumped for fun, Cotter and Liv. Liv and Cotter. Bridges, antennas, the sheer face of Champlain Mountain. They used the radio tower behind SkyHigh for practice. Cotter offered Osman the chance to experience the rush himself. And Osman wanted the rush—he did—but the first hundred rungs of the tower were as high as his nerves allowed. BASE jumping: a hardcore sport with no reserve parachute, no time to troubleshoot, no room for error. He climbed down and cheered them on instead, read Bell Hooks in the shade, the same page eight times over, sidetracked by the easy banter that unfurled like green ribbon from up high.

He heard it first, a sound like a snapped guitar string. A yelp. The shred and flutter of loose fabric. Cotter’s rig had deployed unevenly, tangling in the tower’s guy wires. He was falling. Liv was at the distant top. Osman, alone, felt Cotter’s body meet the ground. A thick, sloughing galumph.

He called 911. He braced Cotter’s head and cleared the airway like he’d learned lifeguarding at the Lewiston YMCA. Thirty compressions, two breaths. The paramedics said he’d saved Cotter’s life. A SkyHigh hero. Everyone is grateful. Liv is grateful. Obviously. But really—Osman knows—she’s replaying the moment he retreated off the tower and slipped the defective BASE rig from his shoulders to Cotter’s.

How does Osman know Liv thinks this? Because the same scene plays behind his eyes. It could’ve been him who met the ground. Fortune has spared him before in life, and now it has spared him again. It should’ve been him. Osman cannot unsee it.

*     *     *

Once a parachute is properly folded, every whiff of excess air must be squeezed from the canopy. This may be done as most packers prefer, with a heavy rubber mat draped evenly to avoid jostling the lines, or, as Osman likes, with his body. He’s on his stomach, rocking side to side, compressing Purple #3, when Liv jogs in after landing Phi Kappa Sigma. She greets her next customer without glancing Osman’s way.

Osman, deep down, always knew that Liv was serious about Cotter. The way she threw herself into his lap. How hugely she smiled when he sang along to Shania Twain. How she overlooked his borderline-insulting political ignorance. Her Airstream’s late-night syncopation, creaking in time with the spring peepers from the woods. Osman knew from the beginning, he just couldn’t fathom why.

Cotter was a country jock from Aroostook County who shotgunned Bud Heavies. Referred to Budweisers as Bud Heavies. Unironically wore Hawaiian shirts, and an oversized belt buckle engraved with a pair of cowboy boots. He was a crossfit enthusiast who’d never marched for anything.

Liv, meanwhile, had graduated summa and dreamt of working for the ACLU. She’d been arrested twice for civil disobedience, once protesting the christening of an AEGIS destroyer at the Bath naval yards, and again at Lewiston City Hall, demanding better treatment for Somali refugees. She could quote Emma Goldman at length in her case for stateless socialism. Cotter had never heard of Emma Goldman. Or Bell Hooks. Not even Chomsky. The pairing was so ludicrous that it braided a twisted hope: if Cotter, why not Osman?

But as summer ripened, Osman understood why not. Cotter was kind, and funny in a lame-dad way. Had this gag where he’d answer customers’ phones (pockets had to be emptied before suiting up), “The person you’re trying to reach is falling at terminal velocity and too high to talk—oh wait here she comes,” followed by a plummeting-from-the-heavens scream. He mixed tacky tropical drinks at their runway parties, when the SkyHigh crew unfolded beach chairs, played volleyball and grilled, tarmac underfoot still warm from the day’s sun. Cotter was kind and fun and tacky and lame and above all comfortable in his skin, wearing his self-assurance as Osman understood only hazel-eyed white guys with big pecs and straight teeth could. Osman saw an envelope of confidence-rich air that surrounded Cotter, revitalizing all in his atmosphere. People got high breathing that stuff. They loved it. Liv loved it. Osman loved it. He loved when Cotter pressed a Mai Tai into his hand. He loved when Cotter challenged him to a runway foot race. He loved when Cotter intercepted him on the gravel path after work, that humid August evening, late summer sunlight and the chirring of insects.

“O-Man. Got a minute?”

“Sure,” Osman said. “What’s up?”

Cotter smiled his dopey smile, hitched his thumbs in his belt.

“Depends. Can you keep a secret?”

*     *     *

Liv’s next customer is a middle-aged woman, lean and ropey. She slips into her jumpsuit, laughs at something funny Liv says. Liv assists with her helmet, slides a finger beneath the chinstrap to check the tightness.

Osman clenches his thighs, crunching Purple #3. The last bit of trapped air hisses from beneath. The symbolism of packing Liv’s parachutes isn’t lost on him. Back in June—when they were supposed to be organizing the migrant workers and swapping passages of Audre Lorde in bed after morning sex—he imagined tucking little notes between the folds of her parachutes, dozens of fortune-cookie declarations to snowstorm in midair during her descent.

I’d rather vote for a corporate Democrat than be without you.        

Better file a grievance with the NLRB cuz my heart’s on strike.

Roses are red. Violets are blue. Resisting the capitalist white supremacist heteronormative patriarchy makes me so damn hot for you.

Liv ducks into the gear room to switch out helmets. Osman catches her coming back.

“How’s the sky today?” he says.

She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “Okay for now. Afternoon might be rough—clouds blowing in from Acadia. You jumping at lunch?”

A dumb question. When has Osman ever not jumped at lunch? He wants to tease her but he can see a shadow face beneath her Everything-Is-Great face.

“Olivia, allow me to share an ancient Somali proverb.” He layers tendrils of parachute line into careful S-folds as he speaks. “Nothing quells the troubled mind like fro yo after work. Especially when rainbow sprinkles are involved. Especially when Osman is treating.”

Liv smiles tightly. “Maybe. Let’s talk later.”

She books it to her client. They head outside.

The plane is cleared for takeoff when a customer balks. This happens once or twice a week, often enough for Osman to keep his jumpsuit nearby at all times.

“Slot’s open on load five,” Janice shouts from the office. “Anybody want in?”

Osman is already zipping up. His mother and father, they say the sky is the only part of Maine that reminds them of home. Osman does not remember Somalia. He loves the sky for itself. He is always ready. He always wants in.

*     *     *

Tandem instructors sit with clients in two rows on the floor. Osman and the other fun-jumpers crowd the door. He shoots Liv a thumbs-up but misses. She’s tugging at her client’s harness, clipping in. The propellers vibrate Osman’s molars. His body pulses with adrenaline. One hundred forty-one jumps this summer. It never grows old. Door sealed, they hurtle down the runway.

Fun-jumpers go first. Osman arcs his head, arms and legs starfished to the sides. Free fall lasts thirteen, fourteen, fifteen glorious seconds. The cold lightness. The rush. Then he pulls the drogue to a whoosh and jerks upright, coming to what feels like a stop. Wind ruffles the canopy. The gentle creak of his harness. This is his favorite part. The quiet, compared to the racket of the plane. He can almost touch it.

On clear days, Bar Harbor and Cadillac Mountain decorate the horizon. Today the clouds are towering skeins of raw spun-sugar. SkyHigh sits a mile below in train-set miniature between the woods and blueberry fields: grassy drop zone, clubhouse, the cluster of RVs, trailers and tents (“Camp Janice”) where the crew lives rent-free. He steers his rig in a corkscrew arc for a view of the plane above. Tiny pinhead dots tumble into the void, parachutes unfurling like droplets of blood in water. He shades his eyes with a hand, searching for the color purple. To earn his solo permit, he had to complete a series of tandem jumps. Liv took him on his first. Her breath on the back of his neck, her body warm against his.

There: a splash of violet blossoming in the sky.

Some might find it odd that Liv continues jumping after Cotter’s accident, but not Osman. Want to clear your mind? Gain some perspective? No better place than 6000 feet above the earth’s surface. At 6000 feet Osman does not picture life in the graveyard of the Jubba Valley had his family not fled for Kenya, the three weeks of scorched desert his young parents traversed carrying him. He does not imagine the militias, the rapes and beheadings, the daily choices he would’ve grown up to face. At 6000 feet he is not squandering the opportunity of America, wasting a summer jumping from airplanes with happy people while others go hungry, bombed, exploited. He doesn’t care what Bell Hooks would say, or Chomsky, or his family. At 6000 feet he never second-guesses the urges that spark his veins. He is not an African Marxist atheist in conservative Catholic Maine. He is not a clay jar for his community to fill with hope. He is not a lanky young man with all shapes of love for all types of people and nowhere for it to fit.

A subtle rise in air temperature announces the bottom of the troposphere. Wind is picking up. Clouds like fish-scales threaten from the east, as Liv warned. Janice will ground the plane if visibility deteriorates. Osman breathes deeply, grateful for the customer who backed out. If guaranteed one jump per day for life, he thinks he could bear anything. He’s sure of it.

Cotter of all people put it best. They were harnessed together—Osman’s final tandem training jump—drifting so lazily they could’ve been pinned in the sky. Cotter pointed out the speck of a truck driving the perimeter of the blueberry fields. “Doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer, right? This high up, the world can’t bum rush you. For seven minutes it’s like you’re not even falling.”

*     *     *

Cotter’s secret was a clearing in the woods, a patch of pine needles surrounded by what he declared to be the best wild blackberries in Maine. He coached Osman in finding the ripest berries deep inside the brambles, the thorny, hard-to-reach places, safe from the birds. They picked and snacked from the vines. Cotter said he and Liv were jumping the radio tower on Monday and Osman should come try: skydiving was to BASE jumping like pixy stix were to meth.

“You had me at pixy stix,” Osman said.

Cotter laughed. “So Liv wants to come with me to Florida.”

A sudden, unexpected thing to say, but Osman rolled with it.

“I think she mentioned that,” he said.

Liv had indeed “mentioned that,” explaining to Osman in cruel detail how she’d join Cotter on his off-season circuit, working drop zones up and down the East Coast, circling back to SkyHigh by Memorial Day. And law school? The ACLU? Of course, Liv said. But couldn’t she have some fun first?

“But between the two of us, O-Man—and you can’t say anything, I haven’t told her yet—I don’t see it working. Liv’s no drop zone bum. We got nada in common, me and her.”

Osman popped a berry in his mouth, thrilled but cautious.

“What about jumping?” he offered.

“Gravity’s free. Any sucker can jump. Here’s a juicy one, catch.”

He lobbed a berry at Osman. It bounced off his palm. Cotter crouched to pick it up.

“Liv’s the smartest chick in Maine. She can do better than me.” He punched Osman playfully on the arm. “What about you? You guys would look fine together! She digs tall dudes. I could put in a good word—Liv, open your eyes, O-Man’s a goddamn catch.”

A ribbon of blue flame licked Osman, worming beneath his skin. He worked his hand through the brambles, feeling for softness. He didn’t know what to say. The forest was losing the last of its colors. The tree crickets and katydids were warming up for their nightly chorus.

“You do have a thing for her, right?” Cotter took a step closer. His atmosphere was tobacco and deodorant. Osman breathed it in. Cotter punched him again, softer this time. He squeezed Osman’s bicep, kneading muscle against bone. “Bro, tell me I’m not crazy.”

“Liv’s great,” Osman said, swallowing.

“Liv is great”—Cotter crushed the berry between his finger and thumb—“but the woman doesn’t know what she wants.” He glanced at Osman sidelong. “What about you, O-Man? Do you know what you want?”

And like it was nothing, Cotter pressed his finger and thumb to Osman’s lips. And like it was nothing, Osman opened his mouth, letting that tangy sweetness in.

*     *     *

Janice has a line she rolls out for disappointed tourists: Don’t like Maine’s weather? Wait five minutes. It works both ways. In the five minutes since Osman watched Liv’s tandem rig safely deploy, the sky has traded its blues for grays. From 500 feet, he can see the wind socks at full mast. From 300 feet, individual tree branches tremble. From 100 feet, an empty potato chip bag tumbleweeds the runway, glittering.

Janice is waiting when he lands. She bunches his parachute and reassigns him to catch tandem pairs. A catcher must quickly gather and compress the parachute while the instructor unclips. It requires precise teamwork, otherwise the wind may fill the canopy like a sail, dragging instructor and client away. Which is nearly what happens when the last tandem pair touches down. Liv unclips before Osman is ready. A strong gust rips the canopy from his hands. The parachute—Purple #1—billows across the drop zone, over the stone wall, into the blueberry fields. Webbing, pack, and lines dance along.

Liv shouts an apology to her client and runs after it. Osman catches up to her by the stone wall. “Liv, I got this. It was my fault.”

She shakes her head, unfastens her helmet. “I came in too hard. My fault.”

She’s not asking for help, but she’s not asking him to turn around either. So Osman does what he’s done all summer: he tags along.

Purple #1 is a smear of jelly caught in the far tree line. They take the dirt road through the fields. Plastic bins of blueberries line the road. The Haitians drag wide, double-handled rakes through the bushes. “Cesar Chavez!” yells one, fist in the air. “Power to the people!” shouts another.

Osman grins sheepishly, raises a fist in return. Truthfully he enjoys the camaraderie. The Haitians have been busting his balls since he and Liv first approached, the men gulping water from a cooler on a pickup bed. It was late July, hot, week one of the harvest. Liv ran introductions—“Osman here is Somali Bantu, a refugee”—and then she looked at him, expectantly, as though a Dean’s List student with no accent who’d spent zero days in the field had everything in common with six Haitian laborers, their gummy English and calloused hands. And yet he performed as Liv expected. Nailed his talking points about the United Farm Workers, the power of solidarity, syndicalism. The men nodded and winked at each other, clearly more interested in Liv’s legs than the means of production. Osman didn’t blame them. He didn’t blame Liv either, didn’t call her out for assuming the African diaspora shared some secret understanding. Because what if they did? And they all understood it but him? For as long as Osman could remember he’d wanted to be like everyone else: boys and girls at Lewiston Elementary. Rappers on MTV. Leftwing intelligentsia. BASE jumping drop zone bums. American. African. African American. But as soon as he becomes one thing, he’s something else. A 4.0 economics major with a new concentration in free-fall. An activist skydiver introduced as a Somali refugee. A Somali refugee spitting nineteenth-century Russian anarchist theory.

What about you, O-Man? Do you know what you want?

That which Osman can’t be—it won’t let him be.

*     *     *

Osman brings in the slack while Liv delicately extricates Purple #1 from a bush. The sky begins to mist. The plane drones low for what will surely be the final landing of the day. With no hurry to return, they save the rig and sit on a log. A pickup truck weaves the fields, workers hustling berries in from the weather. Osman crosses his long legs at the ankles.

“How are you doing, Liv? Really?”

It’s like he’s cast a spell. Her face collapses. She can’t even try to hide it. She leans against him when he draws Purple #1 over their shoulders. The first raindrops pepper the canopy.

“This time must be so difficult for you,” he says, wishing he sounded less like a sympathy card. “If there’s anything I can do…”

Liv wipes her eyes, buzzes her lips, laugh-sighs.

“Thirty-two thousand people died from accidental falls last year,” she says. “I looked it up. The government keeps stats on how we die.”

“I thought he was stable,” Osman says, a pang in his chest. “Did something happen?”

“He is stable. He’s fine. I mean, you know.” She draws a ragged breath. “He broke his back. When he wakes up he’ll wish he was dead. I know he will. We were supposed to drive to Key West. Fuck, Osman, what am I going to do?”

This would be the time for Osman to tell Liv that Cotter never saw her beyond the summer. The information will likely punish her for a day or two and then it will release her. But Osman suddenly doesn’t want to release her. Liv, who has returned his affection with such absentminded carelessness. Who possibly blames him for not allowing Cotter to die out there in the shadow of the radio tower. She must feel for a moment the terrible weight of real things.

“My family, when we fled our village, the Darood caught us in the bush,” he says. “They shot my uncle against a mango tree. I had three sisters. They took my sisters. They took my aunt. My cousin tried to stop them. They cut out his tongue. We had to watch. They promised we would be next if we closed our eyes”—Liv brings a hand to her mouth. Osman doesn’t stop.—“Farmers, tens of thousands, were slaughtered defending crops in their fields. Almost every child under five died of starvation. You cannot imagine the sorrow, Liv. You cannot.”

The stories are all true, even if Osman was too young to remember. The war, his sisters, the refugee camp: horrors his father has backfilled, demanding Osman know the sacrifices of those who died so he could live. He was a toddler when they resettled in America, and Liv knows this—Osman is sure he’s told her—just as she knows that he scrapped his summer to follow her into the sky. She knows but doesn’t know. She is blinded by privilege and an extravagant sense of safety, the same undeserved gifts that hobble Osman with guilt. The difference is that Osman feels bad about those who have suffered because of him. He feels so bad about so much.

“There are no words, Liv. There are no numbers. The government—if there’d been one—couldn’t have kept stats if it tried. One person is nothing. Our plans mean shit. You’re not special. You’re lucky.”

He expects Liv to question his janky chronology or tell him to drop the misery one-upmanship or quit being such an asshole, but in fact she looks contemplative, grateful even, which feels somehow worse. She rests her head against his shoulder. Rain falls. The smell of nylon and damp earth. Liv and Osman, Osman and Liv. Finally they are alone and sharing a moment and it’s nothing like he imagined. Yes a hot current of desire buzzes his meridian lines from where her head touches his shoulder, but he’s too angry at her lack of self-awareness, and angry at her patronizing attitude to organizing the Haitians, and angry most of all at himself for knowing he would discard all criticism of her in a heartbeat, as she did with Cotter. Sorting the feelings and counter-feelings gives him a jangly, outside-of-himself lightheadedness. He’s not entirely disappointed when they are interrupted.

“Cesar Chavez!”

Three workers walk from the road, passing a gallon jug of water. Rain drips from the brims of their caps. Two are young, twentyish, the third closer in age to Osman’s father, forty-something. All have mustaches. They are each smiling.

“Good day baby!” they say, nodding to Liv, winking to Osman.

“Hi fellas,” Liv says in her upbeat-for-customers voice. “You sure look happy.”

Osman suggests they finally found the balls to form a union and smash the state.

The men laugh. No time for that busy business, says the older one. The boss has called it for the season. Tomorrow they drive for the strawberries in New Hampshire. Strawberries are easy easy, no rakes. Tonight they celebrate. Beer and food, music, fire. Football if the sky and the moon are friendly.

“I’d love to, but I have to visit my boyfriend,” Liv says, realizing before Osman that they are being invited.

The men groan and protest theatrically. One stabs himself in the heart with an invisible dagger. Osman knows that dagger.

“And you Cesar? You drink some rum with us? Hot hot like fire?”

“I only do hot hot hot,” Osman says, which they find hilarious.

The older man reaches for Purple #1, examining the canopy as if testing the fabric of an expensive suit. “I tell you he gotta be cracking his head, your papa. My boys they are not jumping out of no airplanes for all the gold in the world.”

“Their loss,” Osman says. “Skydiving’s great. You should try.”

The man studies Osman’s face for an uncomfortable beat. “How much?”

Osman laughs, then realizes he’s serious. He defers to Liv. “First jump is what?”

“One hundred ten,” she says.

The men murmur, whistle. They caucus, not in English. Their words are softer than Somali, the edges sanded, but Osman catches something similar in the cadence, as if composed on the same urgent scale. He hears his father and mother negotiating the demands of social workers and ESL classes, minimum wage and Maine winter and family waiting in the camps. Always cracking their heads over something. Their relief that Osman graduated Lewiston High with a full college scholarship has earned him a pass to do whatever he wishes. A heavy freedom.

The men come to an agreement in a flurry of cash.

“Here you have it, Cesar.”

Osman points to the low clouds. “You have to wait for the sky to break. Might not be till tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow is good,” the man says. “Here, take it.”

“You pay Janice, the boss. Not me.”

“You pay the boss for me.”

Osman shrugs and reaches for the money. The man pulls his hand back, he and the others erupting in laughter. He shakes his head, smiling.

“You’re a mad man, Cesar Chavez. Me, I’m too busy busy to die. Not today not tomorrow.”

*     *     *

Osman dries and packs Purple #1. Liv peels off her jumpsuit and jokes with customers while Janice issues refunds. SkyHigh is officially closed for the day. Osman showers and changes in the clubhouse. He’s lacing his sneakers when Liv raps the door. Her hair is shiny with rain. That smile. She twirls her keys.

“Does the fro yo offer still stand?”

Osman takes measure. On one hand, the laws of attraction have shifted since their moment in the blueberry fields. On the other hand, who is he kidding?

She drives to Ellsworth and insists on treating. When Osman says, “Thanks,” she says, “No. Thank you. You’re right. I’m so fucking fortunate.”

They eat in her car listening to Democracy Now! and the slap-slap metronome of the wipers. Liv wishes they could keep hanging but she has to drive to Portland.

There is something about the way she phrases Portland—like a chore, no mention of Cotter—that makes Osman volunteer to join her.

“You sure?” Liv says. “It’s five hours roundtrip.”

“Sure I’m sure. If you want the company.”

He’s involving himself more than he should. He knows this. But Liv is an adult. Liv can say no.

Liv does not say no.

*     *     *

Osman draws the line at the entrance to Maine Medical. He is the one who saved Cotter’s life. That means he doesn’t have to visit. He doesn’t have to stand over the broken tangle of bandages and tubes that should’ve been him.

“I can’t do hospitals,” he says.

“I understand completely,” Liv says, thinking perhaps of the horrors Osman does not remember from Somalia, or what he remembers all too well from the radio tower.

“Give me forty-five minutes,” she says. “An hour tops.”

She stands on her toes and kisses his cheek, filling his insides with joy.

He explores rainy Portland, kicking pebbles into puddles. He saves stranded earthworms from sidewalks. He counts exactly two other black people on Commercial Street, a couple in pastels, browsing a cheese shop. A bell jingles when he steps inside. He nods his hellos. He buys what they buy, a slender brick of artisanal cheddar, and accepts the clerk’s offer to giftwrap. “For my girlfriend,” he says, just to hear the words. The bell jingles as he leaves, asking him pleasantly: Osman, dear, what the fuck are you doing?

*     *     *

Liv is teary but cheerful on the drive back. A little hyper. She speeds, tailgating pokey cars in the passing lane. She turns up the radio. They trade the cheddar back and forth, dimpling the brick with impressions of their teeth. She doesn’t mention Cotter. Osman doesn’t ask.

Outside Bangor she veers suddenly across three lanes of traffic, exits and runs into Stop & Shop for an enormous bottle of clean white rum. She wants to party with the Haitians, she says, her eyes punchy. She rests a hand on his thigh.

“We need to be celebrating more, Osman. Everyone should be celebrating all the time.”

She gets an early start, cracking the rum when they’re off the highway again. The hilly back roads to SkyHigh are slick and dark, afternoon rain thinning to evening mist. Liv sings to the radio and asks Osman about Somalia before the war and will he go back and who does this song and isn’t it true that the comatose can hear every word you say?

Osman doesn’t know, he says. He doesn’t know what Liv said to Cotter and he doesn’t know what Cotter heard. He is keeping alert for deer, hand hovering by the steering wheel. When Liv hands him the rum he only wets his lips. Hundreds of parachutes he’s packed for her this summer, saving her life two, three times a day. She ought to be so grateful.

She turns into Camp Janice, RV windows flickering in TV blue, and Osman has to crank the emergency brake to keep them from ramming her Airstream.

“My hero!” she claps.

“Damn straight,” he says. He leans over and kisses her hard.

They spill outside. Liv is giggly but no-nonsense. She pushes him into his tent and zips the flap. Shirts come off. She is very drunk. Osman is a gentleman but he is not a saint. His hands have wanted this for too long. Liv breathes deeply, bites his lip, grinds hard. Her face is as smooth as Cotter’s was stubbled. Osman remembers bracing his fragile neck. The force with which he exhaled damp life into his heavy chest.

He stops Liv when she unbuckles him, partly because it’s not right, partly because it feels good to deny her something she wants. She protests for a minute. The next she’s asleep. He pulls his sleeping bag over her shoulders, unzips the tent.

The moon illuminates the foggy drop zone with a radiant buzz like a stadium before a game. Osman finishes himself in the center of the landing area, wipes his hand on the dewy grass, buckles his shorts. The mist is enlivening against his bare chest. The mist is enveloping. He could be anywhere. He could be anyone. There is the radio tower blinking red, red, red above the tree tops. There is music floating from beyond the blueberry fields, the warped shouts and laughter of the Haitians. There is desire and there is the desire to be desired. There is the eldest and slowest and arguably drunkest, who has been assigned to play keeper. He’s guarding the goal, sipping from a can of beer, the action at the far end of the scrappy field, when the boy emerges from the fog, a dark spirit.

“Cesar Chavez you scare the shit out of me boy!

The boy wears only a pair of shorts. No checkered jumpsuit, no white girl. A big bottle in his hand. His ribs stick out. Too thin, no muscle. Pity the white girl couldn’t come. A great beauty. But good to see the boy without her. The boy should know better, enslaving himself to the likes. Should not be talking politics to strangers in fields. Should not be jumping from airplanes.

The boy holds his bottle like a sacrifice to the moon. “I brought rum.”

“Rum is good, Cesar. We have food at the fire. Come eat. Come come.”

The boy sways on the sidelines, too thin and too young. No business of his, the eldest and slowest and arguably drunkest, but he cannot help it. The young, they keep getting younger. Cheering erupts from the foggy reaches of the game. Shadows slip through mist.

“You play, Cesar? You have the good touch?”

“I’m all right.”

He walks over and cuffs the boy on the back, takes a drink from his bottle.

“Come then. Our side is no shirts. Your team is us.”

Nick’s fiction has been read on NPR’s All Things Considered, and has appeared in The Southern Review, Ecotone, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program and recipient of a fellowship at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, which is definitely not haunted. He lives some of the time in Los Angeles and some of the time in Maine. In his spare time he installs solar panels and plays trombone as the least-talented musician in an activist street band. He has recently completed his first novel.


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