Two boys ride the bus through Florida. One of them won't be alive much longer.
This is summer, 1987. Hot skies going basalt, boiled air. A road straight and bone-colored through grass and marsh.
Neither of the boys belongs here, you can tell. They stare out of the windows, but they don't want to be caught doing it.
The highway leads only on. They see towns that repeat one another like puzzle pictures: spot the eight differences in oceans of crabgrass and civic pink oleanders.
The first boy is Martin Arkenhout. Seventeen. Doesn't talk to people much; he doesn't have the habit. Besides, he's foreignDutch, blond, tall, white, lankyand he can't stop himself feeling scared and superior all at once. He sees the crackers on the bus, and he thinks they're potato eaters out of some beach-party van Gogh. There are Hispanics, too, with the dark skin that looks rich to him, but he won't reach out. He's a careful boy.
He works out kilometers and miles to judge the speed. He slouches back to the bathroom and pisses into the lurching tank of liquid, then weaves back to his seat. He gets to wondering, eyes glazed, whether he truly wants to be here: a kid, going to be just a foreign kid at some American high school for a year, expected somehow to grow up.
Each stop, he gets off the bus and buys more Pepsi. By eleven in the morning, he has a fair caffeine buzz, his eyes very open on the world but with not much to see.
"I don't know why I did this," someone says.
Arkenhout looks up.
"I thought this was a really cool idea," the second boy says. "See America."
"Where are you going?"
"College. The way hard way."
"Oh," Arkenhout says. "So am I."
"You're not American?"
"Cool." The word sounds like absolution for being foreign. After a while, the boy says, "You have those marijuana cafes, don't you?"
Arkenhout says, "And Rembrandt."
"Yeah, yeah. Sorry."
This second boy is tall, blond, and white, like a snapshot of Arkenhout that's been retouched: hair seriously cut, more worked out, less tired and more brown.
"Seth Goodman," the second boy says.
Arkenhout thinks the name sounds like a fiction; he remembers nineteenth-century novels in English class.
"Christ!" Goodman said. "The bus"
The doors are already shut. A parting signal of blue-black exhaust. The boys run and hammer on the doors and after a false start and a moment, the driver opens up.
"You didn't hear me shouting?" he says.
They both apologize, remembering the same lessons: nice boys.
They sit apart for the next hour and a half. At the next stop they buy chili dogs and coffee.
"I'm going to New York University," Goodman says.
"I'm in America for a year abroad. Before university." But Goodman doesn't seem to mind the canyon gap in status. They're both on the road, after all.
"Where are you from?" Arkenhout asks, politely.
"Jackson, Michigan. In the Midwest. Famous for its giant waterfall with colored lights."
"This is my first time in America."
"Really. You play baseball in Holland?"
In the next few hours, Goodman starts explaining. He starts in slogans: how he takes the bus for environmental reasons, how he wants to see America. He pulls up a bit of personal information: he will major in journalism. So far, he's an entry in a yearbook, concise and shiny. But after many more miles, he tries really hard to think of Arkenhout as this guy in the locker room he's known forever: so he mentions Tracy, the girlfriend in the hometown, who's a gymnast and dark, and how they get it on in the bleachers at the giant waterfall with colored lights.
He deserves a whole lifestory in return, so he thinks, but he'd be appalled if it turned out to be too foreign.
Arkenhout just says he's going to some Tampa suburb to be a schoolkid, which he's obviously done already. He doesn't have anything easy to say about home or parents. He particularly doesn't say out loud that he will learn America like a lesson because he is good at languagesnot just neat sounds from a clever mouth, but the ability to listen to how people don't say a thing straight and then repeat it.
Goodman says he'd like to stop off before Tampa, pick up a bus the next morning. Arkenhout reckons he'll do the same. Just this once, it's not what everyone expects him to do; that's the whole attraction.
The bus draws into a station dressed up with bits of white column and brick siding. The boys pull their bags out of the belly of the bus. They talk a bit about that green flash in the sky you get in Florida, so they've both heard.
Technicolor evening. Cracker eyes. Small motel, old pink, two double beds, TV with the colors shifted like a very old 3-D movie. Bathroom with crumbling mosaic and a barrier like a police line: this side sanitized for your protection, the rest at your own risk. Palm trees in a very little motion, a shine more than a move.
Goodman talks about New York. "You meet people who matter," he says, which must be his father's phrase. He'll work out where the career paths run, get invited, although he's not sure to what.
Arkenhout starts to think he's carrying his own nameMartin, Arkenhoutlike a too-big case your mother packs, which he'll sooner or later have to lug home to Holland.
He remembers to call his new American family in Tampa to say he's missed the bus, been delayed.
He pays serious attention now. Goodman doesn't bite his nails. Arkenhout does; better stop. Americans have such glamorous, managed teeth, but Arkenhout's are good, too. Goodman doesn't say much about his hometown because he's leaving it. While he's in the shower, Arkenhout thumbs through his diary, finds an orderly list of emergency numbers: home, relations, doctor. The credit card that paid for the motel room is in his father's name. So that's how Americans do it, Arkenhout thinks.
Goodman comes out of the shower in white socks. He lies down on the bed, brown and naked, and he smiles. Arkenhout notices the sharp side of his belly muscles.
Since they've only just met, since they have nothing in common except not knowing each other's stories, it is natural to ask about parents, brothers, sisters. Goodman's are all in one house in a clean, small, distant town, not unlike Arkenhout's small town, except the Dutch are by the dunes and the sea. "My father's a doctor," Arkenhout says, as though that meant much more than a profession. Goodman has a brother and a sister, but he says they're "way heartland."
Arkenhout is curious about everything. He learns the motel first. Outdoor flamingos, paint bruised. An old apple of a woman, brown and soft, running the office; she has a gun just showing in a desk drawer. Rooms like boxes. No questions asked, or even contemplated, once the credit card runs through the machine.
Once, in the night, he thinks Goodman is watching him. He pretends to be asleep.
The next morning is smotheringly hot.
Arkenhout can barely hold his list of questions, and Goodman now wants to tell: or at least to brag a bit, to instruct the foreigner.
They eat grits for breakfast with eggs. Arkenhout manages. Goodman starts laughing. "I never ate this"and he catches the waitress's judgmental eye"stuff before," he says.
The bus seats stick to bare thighs. Goodman explains New York like a tabloid and a guidebook. Arkenhout listens, but he also watches the light show of sun and tangled branches through the windows.
Goodman is suddenly impatient. "This sucks," he says. "We should rent a car."
"I don't have my license," Arkenhout says. "Not with me."
"I'll drive," Goodman says. "They won't rent to a teenage alien."
"O.K.," Arkenhout says. To himself he says, "I Was a Teenage Alien." He likes the sound of it.
He's told his sponsors in Tampa which bus he'll catch, but getting a car sounds like much the same arrangement, only with a welcome bit of elastic in it. "Cool," he says, experimentally.
At the next main stop, the boys quit the bus and Seth Goodman, boy advocate, tries to talk Hertz into giving him a car. This doesn't work for two kids roaring indefinitely through Florida. But the clerk, who's absurdly muscular for a paper pusher, skin hardly containing the biceps, says there's a place down the road, and he smiles as the two blonds amble off.
The place down the road is the local sunset home for cars. The rate is high, the car a faded Taurus, but the credit card solves everything.
They swing out of town on the highway. The flat, banal business of hard travel has turned into an adventureradio on, fast breeze, open road, a sense of chances. They sing out. The weather is loud like old rock 'n' roll up ahead.
But the road doesn't turn into a story. It just runs under them like clockwork.
They start looking for laughs. A brown plaster gator, on big haunches for stability, rears out of the grass. A sign promises a wonder of the world: five dollars each.
The office is papered in cobra skin, a sign says. There's a live cobra out back who sways to the sound of comb and tissue paper, and raccoons in cages, with clever hands.
"I saw this jungle before," Seth says, checking out the skimpy bushes. "Saw it on Star Trek."
Arkenhout nods. He's seen that show.
Under the boardwalk, in the muddy pools, a couple of corrugated things shift. One hinges open on great teeth, yawning. The place smells of inattention, not like home, not for either boy.
"They'll chew you up so your mama won't know you," a man in overalls says helpfully. "You want to feed them?"
Goodman tries out some hog call he once heard from a TV weatherman. Nothing answers. He picks up a bucket of chopped chickens, all shiny flesh, black blood, sawed bone, and rattles it. He tips the bucket into the mud. A snap and a flurry and the flesh is all gone.
"Your mama won't know you," the man in overalls says. He never gets tired of saying it.
The boys need the next thing. But the car won't start.
"I don't see how the battery could have gone flat," Arkenhout says.
Goodman says, "We'll sue them." He's heard his father say that.
They push the car off the hot tarmac forecourt and onto the road.
It splutters, the engine turns, and the car dies again. Goodman lets out the handbrake, opens the front doors, and the boys try to run with the weight of the car on their shoulders. This time, it comes to querulous life.
"It's a long way to a service station," Goodman says.
"Maybe they'd help us at the gator farm." But the hut is locked, and nobody answers.
Goodman drives like an aunt. He never makes the main road. The car dies just out of sight of the highway and out of sight of the men who mind the gators, in a slight bowl of land between trees.
Goodman sits there, drumming his fingers on the wheel. Suddenly he doesn't look a prince; he looks a boy. Arkenhout feels older at once.
The heat rests on the skin and sounds filter through the windows: things moving, snakes and gators, in the ditches and the swamp. There shouldn't be blind hollows in flat Florida, and Goodman is fretting to be out of this one just as soon as he can.
"Shit," he says. "The car's on my father's card. We can't just leave it. And we can't phone and we're out here"
"I'll walk to the highway."
"Nobody'll stop for you. They'll think you're hitchhiking."
Arkenhout says, "They'd stop in Holland. I think, anyway."
They hear cars buzz past unseen on the highway. They hear the little, tentative crisscross movements in the bush, and one splash.
Goodman is out of the car and he's almost running, never mind the sun. He's going fast to get away from the situation, so he can turn all the nature around him, browsing at the edges of his eyes, into a harmless frieze, a movie tracking shot.
Arkenhout says, "I'll come with you." He can't do anything else.
But Goodman is running away, that's obvious.
Arkenhout stands in the shade of a tree at the roadside. He watches Goodman wave, make like a hitchhiker, put up his hand as though he were trying to stop a bus or a cab. Nothing works. He's a suspect boy, sodden, carrying nothing, in the middle of nowhere. He doesn't even seem to have a car. It's best if Arkenhout stands out of the way, so the drivers don't know there are two of them.
Some guys stare ahead and gun the engine coincidentally. Some look disapproving, as though they wished for the courage to stop and deliver a proper sermon. Two stubbled men in a pickup swerve toward Goodman where he dances on the road, and swerve back at the very last minute. He feels a hot metal wind.
Arkenhout watches. He savors the heat, the extreme, the sense of being lost: which means anything is possible. He slips out of sight a minute to piss.
He hears nothing on the road. Then:
"Hey," Goodman is shouting, "Hey!"
Arkenhout buttons his fly. From the gully he hears a soft slamming sound, a car diverted for a moment from its smooth progress, then the car carrying on, but faster. Goodman isn't shouting anymore.
Arkenhout liked being able to hear Goodman. The quiet makes him anxious. He strides back out of the gully.
He looks down the road. A scorch mark leads to Goodman, a pointer of black rubber. Goodman lies, one eye shut and black, one eye staring open. His mouth is bloody, frothing a bit. His legs are cracked and bruised, bone and sinew poking through bare skin.
It seems as though someone was furiously angry that he dared to stand on this road at this time, angry at the very existence of people like him.
The road is silent. The little rickety movements in the bush are held down by the sheer weight of the sun.
Arkenhout feels in his own pockets and tugs out money, passport, postcards for his parents. He's fine. He's fine, he tells himself. He's grown-up, so the spasms in his stomach, the taste of eggs and old cola in his throat, can't be happening.
He doesn't want to look more closely, but he thinks that Seth's eye, the open one, moves a little. Maybe it's some mechanical reaction in a dead body, like current through a lab frog. Maybe he's alive.
Arkenhout tries to remember things learned in the Scouts: bandages, moving the injured, CPR. You don't move a body that's cut and broken like Seth. But the body is out there on the blacktop, and soon there will be traffic. Arkenhout feels obliged. He darts out and he tugs Goodman back to the scrappy crabgrass at the roadside. He acts like Goodman is a stranger, and checks his pockets: money, credit, ID. Arkenhout has a Timex, fake gold; Goodman has a Swiss Army watch.
He feels himself in a still, cold state where thinking seems to be peculiarly clear. He knows this can't be right. He's here with a boy he doesn't know. He's a foreigner, and people don't like foreigners around here, not even Seth Goodman. He's seen the movies, and the TV. He's panicking.
Cops do not understand what's improvised in life. A cop will think that riding the bus, hiring the car, lead inexorably to this broken body on a roadside.
A foreigner and an all-American boy, and the all-American is dead. Or dying.
He listens. There is no sound of an engine in either direction. He puts his head down to Seth's heart, which is struggling away.
Then there are Dr. and Mrs. Arkenhout to consider. They'd hate the idea of something so sensational happening to their son. They might even bring him home, and he couldn't stand going back to all those empty manners.
He picks up a heavy, faceted stone and hits Seth's head, two times, and then throws the rock into the ditch. This is mercy, because there's no way to call help, let alone make it come. He holds the head in his hands for a moment, checking it impersonally. The teeth are loose, he sees. The face is so spoiled it could belong to almost any boy the same build, age, color.
A truck goes by, a high chrome train on twenty-four wheels. For a moment, Arkenhout thinks the truck will stop, but it barrels on. He wonders how long it takes to stop a monster like that.
He holds Goodman's hand. The nails are unbitten. He bites them.
Three miles, four miles down the highway, which once seemed so straight and now bends and shimmers, he's dry and almost out of breath. Nobody's moving, nobody passing. He has the whole damn world to himself.
The sky rumbles and blackens behind him.
He has two sets of papers in the jacket that trails in his left hand. He has Martin Arkenhout, who's a kid and a visitor. He has Seth Goodman, who's already at college and can do what he wants. He has blond hair, the proper height. Easy. The watch on his left wrist is now a Swiss Army watch.
He could be Seth Goodman better than Seth Goodman ever could. He can make Seth Goodman anyone he can imagine.
There is a diner, finally: a yellowish smear of brick between pines. He says there's been an accident, asks for a phone.
A waitress gives him coffee when he wants water and points him to the phone. He can see the waitress wants to be sympathetic, wants to mother the boy and believe him; it's natural. But she's experienced, so she also wants proof of his story.
"College boy," she says.
"Yes," he says, "Ma'am."
She beams, so close he smells the metal of old coffee on her breath.
But the smile is for the other diners. To Arkenhout, she says, softly, "Where's your freaking car then? Where is it?"
"We broke down," he says. "By the alligator farm. And then we tried to get someone to stop on the highway."
It's all true, but still she snorts.
"He was Dutch," Arkenhout says. "He thought they'd stop for us."
"Foreign. What were you doing with a foreign boy?"
She skims about the diner for a bit, ferrying salad to a pasty couple by the window, more coffee to a pencil-thin black queen, a plate of meat and French fries to the middle-aged couple in plaids.
"It sounds terrible, sugar," she says.
He has never gambled before, but if he had, he'd recognize his bright concentration on a single chance.
He watches rain come down in clots, rain with the force of hammers picking at the road and scouring the roadside. Just for a moment, hail makes the air rattle.
He can't eat, although the waitress says he should eat.
He knows when the sun comes back from all the brilliance that lies about on the ground.
He has the phone in his hands at the police station. He's not at all sure that this can work.
"You sound different," this woman's voice says down the phone. She's Mrs. Goodman, mother.
"I did what I could," he says. Say as little as possible. Mimic Seth's particular flat language with your clever mouth.
"It must be shock, dear," she says. Then it's as though she remembers the boy doesn't tolerate endearments anymore. "Seth, I mean," she says. "They'll find the body when the storm stops, all that rain. I know you did all you could."
Arkenhout is dizzy, falling down all the implications of what she says: that he is going to be found.
"Come home. We'll take care of you," the woman says. "Until you're yourself again."
He hears the father snapping and hawking in the background. He thinks he should say something, but the silence, he guesses, only helps his credibility.
"The cops," he begins tentatively.
"Police. Police, Seth."
"The police said bodies do get moved. There are alligators around here. I left him on the roadside because I couldn't just leave him on the road . . ."
"It doesn't bear thinking about," says Mrs. Goodman, and she means it. "You can come home now. You know that. If you want to."
He's guessing: that she longs for him to rush home at once and forever, that the real Seth would pose as a man and refuse. They're not used to separation, he can tell; so they're trying very hard to do it properly.
He knows that much, but he doesn't even know what Seth calls his mother: Mum, Ma, Mother, by her Christian name, by some nickname, and whether she'll notice if he never calls her anything at all. Then he remembers that she expects him to sound, very slightly, not himself.
"I'd rather carry on to New York," Arkenhout says. "I want to get started."
Mrs. Goodman breathes hard. There is a pause, a bit of talk, and Mr. Goodman says down the line, "We'll get you a ticket, Seth. It'll be waiting at the airport. You're all right, are you? You have seen a doctor, haven't you?"
"I'm all right." So they don't parade feeling, either; like his own family, they think they can park emotion like a car until it's needed. "I'll call you from New York."
He puts down the phone. He's very aware, on his skin, that three cops are watching him.
An older sergeant, black, takes him into an interview room.
"Son," he says. "You should know we still didn't find your friend."
Arkenhout thinks they're questioning his story. He sets his face blank.
"There's tire marks, nothing else. The rain and the hail just mashed down the verges and there wasn't a body to see."
Arkenhout says nothing.
"I know this is hard. You want," and here the cop fishes up a word from talk shows, "closure. I promise you. We find him, I'll call you. I'll be in touch right away."
He stretches on the dorm bed, chilled down by the air conditioner. He's early for the semester; his roommate will not arrive for another week. Everybody seems to know there was an accident, so he has a brief buzz of glamour. Everyone is also very kind. Counseling is offered.
But he's thinking: It can't work. They'll find the body. You can't ruin a body enough to escape all those medical records, dental charts; what if Seth Goodman was fingerprinted once, or had his appendix or his wisdom teeth out? He should have inventoried Seth's body while it was alive.
Then: If they find the body and send it back to Holland, what if his parents decide it's not him? The possibilities run about his skin like sweat.
It's only when the call comes from Floridaboy found, badly cut up and smashed, major injuries compatible with car accident and the rest from being tugged about and mauled by gators, everything rotted down by weeks in warm, sluggish water; some contusions that might be from the head going downstream against a sluice; the body photographed, cataloged, identified as Martin Arkenhout because that was the name it ought to have, then burned in a plywood coffin because the remains were too foul to be shared with the grieving parents, and the ashes sent back to Hollandthat Arkenhout stops seeing the kind black Florida cop on guard over his bed.
He punches the air, once. He's rid himself of a skin. He can take up a new life, know people he shouldn't know, invent himself.
At this moment, Fifth Avenue shining with the dust in the air on a brute summer's day, he owns the city.