The tenth swingset I murdered belonged to the Strumms, a family of bikers who lived in some trailers on an acre of pavement off County Line Road. The second-youngest Strumm, Stevie, had invited me the previous Monday in lab. She’d be stuck at home sitting her sister, she’d said, while her parents and aunts and uncles and cousins all rode out to Alpine to see G N’ R; they’d be gone half the day and at least half the night, the swingset was “fucked,” and the neighboring properties were totally vacant.

In the couple-three weeks since the school year had begun, I’d turned down any number of similar invitations. Despite all the social capital I’d earned from my performance at Feather’s, I wasn’t so sure I was ready for an encore. I was, first of all, spooked by the possibility that Feather’s swingset hadn’t initially wanted my help; even if it had said, ||Finish,|| to me—if that hadn’t been the bat, or my imagination—it hadn’t done so til I’d pummeled it for nearly an hour. And then, secondly, I had this uncomfortably self-contradictory feeling about having helped it in front of others (a mix of satisfaction and shame at witnessing my own satisfaction, which persisted despite the persistence of the shame). This was a new, almost vertiginous feeling, a feeling I’ve only ever felt twice since: while dressing at the foot of Grete the grad student’s bed, and after reading No Please Don’t’s first review.

And yet Stevie Strumm had once dubbed me a mixtape just because I’d told her that I liked her Cramps shirt. When our Science teacher’d partnered us for lab that quarter, Stevie’d high-fived me and said, “Thank God.” Each Valentine’s Day since second grade, we’d traded chalky candy hearts and plastic-sleeved roses the school sold at recess (never the “romance”-signifying red ones, true, though never either the “warm feelings/friendship” yellows, but rather those ambiguous pinks and whites). In short, I really liked Stevie Strumm. Sometimes I even thought I was in love with her, and that made me think she might have liked me back a little. Plus she told me she’d missed the previous murder—she’d had to sit her sister that night, too—and she felt left out, kept from something important, and was holding my hands, both of my hands, squeezing a little, saying, “Belt, please.”

*

The turnout was even bigger than at Feather’s. Kids from St. Mary’s and Crown Jewish Day came. Kids from Aptakisic. Kids from Twin Groves. Someone’s older brother brought him in a Firebird—metallic blue, T top—which got him some attention from a few of the girls til Jonboat rolled up in his flan-colored Bentley. He’d bloodied Blackie’s nose on the tetherball court just three days before, and a rumor that they’d fight that evening had spread, but Blackie wasn’t there, and the whole throng of kids, led by Rory Riley, surrounded the limo to demonstrate allegiance.

The swingset sat farther back on the property, between a crescentic array of trailers and a portable fireplace Stevie’d set blazing. I went over to inspect it while Jonboat got mobbed. It was, to my relief, as “fucked” as Stevie’d said. No two contiguous inches of paint could be found on any part of its frame. One swing’s seat was split down the middle. Another one’s chains had been wound repeatedly over the crossbar. The only potentially operable swing hung tilted like a cripple, squealing and crackling against the light breeze. The slide, convex, was missing its ladder. And then there were the legs. Thin, hollow metal. Three of them were still cemented in the ground, variously pocked and dimpled and gashed, while the fourth, having lost a whole chunk near the bottom, was suspended midair, jaggedly terminating inches above the sorry, mangled tube that had once been its foot.

||Are you here for me?|| the swingset asked. I’d been nudging little clouds of rust from a chain. ||Are you that boy who helped the others? You must be. I know it. Your gate—it’s open. I’m so relieved. I can’t wait any longer.||

“They asked me to hold off til sunset,” I said, hand over mouth. “But—”

||Sunset? That’s nothing. That’s great. That’s soon. I’ve waited for years. I’ve been dying forever. From the very beginning. Just rusting away. I was rusty before my assembly, I think. I think I must have got scratched before I got packaged, and they must have stored my box somewhere unsealed and damp. Can you believe that? That isn’t how things are supposed to be, is it? You’re supposed to start out alright, don’t you think? At least alright. Shiny and new. Seductive. Inviting. Everyone says so. But me, from day one, I thought: |I’m corroding. I need to be repurposed. Or junked. Whichever.| What’ll happen, by the way? I mean—do you know?||

“I don’t,” I said.

||I guess no one does. I do hope repurposed, though. I don’t know why. It’s not like I’d have any idea it happened. But I win either way. Destroyed is destroyed. I’m just so glad you’re here. I’ve provided so little. Being’s really been hard for me. Even when I was viable, few took advantage. To be acknowledged was to be misused. You see this swing here?—oh, I’m sorry. I’m boring you. I’ll stop.||

“Hey, no, no. Really. Go on. You’ve been misused. Go on. I want to listen.”

||Well, this swing here, right? The one that’s wrapped around my crossbar? I guess what I’m saying is: Why would someone do that? Because now it can’t be swung on. Same with the one that they split with their tomahawk. And it’s not that I’m a square. Before they tore the ladder off and did who-knows-what with it, one of the girls used to climb up halfway, and then jump to the slide and run right down it. Why only halfway? And why run when she could slide? I have no idea. Same girl also sometimes would stand on a swing for minutes at a time—not swinging, just rocking. Strange, I thought—both things were strange—but the girl was playing. She was using me to play, so I didn’t mind. I’m not close-minded. There are all kinds of wear and tear I don’t object to, even though they’re irregular. There are all kinds of unintended uses I can get behind, even when those uses are not exactly safe. But cutting my swing in half? Ripping my ladder off?||

“It sounds like you’ve had a hard time,” I said.

||You said it, brother. You really did. And thank you for saying it cause that’s the simple truth of it. I’ve had it really hard. Not for very much longer, though, eh? Feels like the sun’ll be down any minute. I think I’ll close my gate now, be alone with my thoughts. If I don’t, for some reason, get to say it later: thank you for helping me. You’re doing something good. And maybe, I don’t know—maybe you want to take a quick swing on me or something? help me remember how things were supposed to be? I know the seat’s tilted, and I don’t look sturdy, but if you put your weight opposite that footless leg, I promise I won’t drop you. And maybe pull your sleeves up over your palms so you don’t get cuts on your hands from the chains. I wish I could control the rust, but I can’t, and it’s sharp, I know, at least in some places. No pressure, by the way. To swing on me, I mean. I know I’m repellent.||

“No, I want to,” I said. “I was just about to ask if you wouldn’t mind.”

I set my bat on the pavement and sat on the swing, my back to the cars and most of the crowd. I leaned, pushed off.

||Thanks again, buddy,|| the swingset said. ||Oh, that’s nice. Not so much the grinding—I’m sorry for the noises, but, wow, just…thank you.||

I guess it closed its gate, then. It said nothing more.

I stopped pumping my limbs and swayed til I was still. The sun finished setting, and, as I got up, a voice behind me said, “Pardon the intrusion.” The voice was gravelly as a Hollywood commando’s, low and even and loud and adult. I turned around to see the man from whom it came. This man was wide. Especially headwise. The arms of his Malcolm X horn-rims were straining, forwardly bowing, verging on sharing a plane with the lenses. The lenses barely encompassed his orbits.

“I’m Burroughs,” he said. “Jonboat’s driver. Jonboat asked me to tell you, ‘Break a leg.’ ”

“Thanks, Burroughs. I’m Belt,” I said. He hadn’t offered his hand when he’d told me his name, so I kept mine to myself, against all reflex, afraid to violate some unknown protocol—I’d never met somebody’s driver before.

“He also asked that I tell you, ‘Everyone’s ready.’ ”

“Me too,” I said.

He handed me the bat. The kids started shouting. Mostly my name. Unlike last time, though, they kept their distance. They seemed to enjoy their proximity to the Bentley. I listened for Stevie, whose face I couldn’t find, and heard a girl yell, “Of you!” which I knew was “Love you!” with the L clipped off by the noise of the crowd, but also I knew that the yeller wasn’t Stevie, and the subject of the phrase—the other part that I’d missed—probably wasn’t “I,” anyway, but rather just “We,” which I guess, in the end, was better than nothing.

 

Halfway between the ground and the crossbar, the footless leg had a rusted-out hole. I struck underneath it—fifty-some blows in furious succession—til the leg folded L-like. Pivoting to launch the second phase of my attack, I noticed my shoulders felt buzzy, too warm. They needed a rest. I thought about lying flat on the pavement to let whatever sinew or muscle I’d wrenched cool down and snap itself back into place, but I didn’t want to do that in front of all those kids, so I crossed to the opposite side of the swingset and leaned on the slide, making a face that said, I hoped, “I am busy plotting my next big move.” The crowd hollered praise, as if I’d taken a bow. The swingset was afraid. ||Why’d you stop?|| it said. ||I thought you said you’d help me.|| “I’m helping you,” I said. ||All you’ve done is bend my leg.|| “I need to get you lower first. I can’t reach your crossbar. You need me to get at your crossbar, right?” ||I need you to V it. You can’t just dent it. You really have to make it irreparable,|| it said. “I know that. I know. That’s what I’ll do.” ||You promise?|| said the swingset. ||You’re not just mocking me? This is really important.|| I gave it my word, rolled cracks from my shoulders, my neck, and my jaw, then crossed back to the side that was opposite the slide, and went full bore at the anchored leg, attacking it at a height that roughly corresponded to that of the L’d one’s bend. Within ten minutes, the second leg was bowing, the crossbar at a slant. I jumped up, grabbed hold, and pulled with all my strength, increasing the slope til the bowed leg resembled a lesser-than sign, and the center of the crossbar was lower than my collarbone—four, maybe four-and-a-half feet off the ground.

I took up the bat, started chopping overhanded, and just as the crossbar began to give, the cheering from behind me drastically abated, and members of my audience were rushing past me, on foot and on bicycle, into the trees behind the trailers, yelling out, “Heat!” and “Fuzz!” and “Bacon!”

I looked over my shoulder and saw six officers rounding up kids, spilling bottles on the ground, cuffing the hands of the Firebird owner (we’d later find out he’d had a joint in his pocket). I saw Burroughs waving to two of the cops as he got inside the limo. Then I saw Stevie get out of the limo, turned back to the swingset, and resumed my chopping.

A couple minutes later, a cop approached me. “Put down the bat,” he said.

“I’m doing nothing wrong.”

“You’re destroying private property that doesn’t belong to you.”

“I’m allowed to,” I said. I yelled out to Stevie, “Tell them I’m allowed to do this, Stevie!”

I couldn’t hear what she told the cop she was talking to, but after a second, her cop said to my cop, “She says he’s allowed to wreck that swingset.”

“I don’t care what she says,” my cop said to me. “What you say you’re doing is goddamn stupid, and what I see you doing is you’re brandishing a weapon at a Wheelatine policeman.”

I said, “That’s not true. You know that’s not true. Just let me finish and I’ll put the bat down.”

“Put the bat down,” he said.

I turned back around and went at the crossbar. This was no act of bravery. I knew I’d be in trouble no matter what I did, and I was more afraid of the shame that I’d feel if I broke my promise to the poor, neglected swingset than I was of the police. Plus I didn’t think my cop was willing to hurt me—he’d have stripped me of the bat already were it otherwise. In case I was wrong about that last part, though, I chopped as fast and hard as I could to discourage him from getting any closer to me.

Within a few minutes, I’d M’d the frame, the swingset was dead, and the twenty-some kids the cops had detained were sending up whoops and whistling and clapping. I couldn’t feel my neck. My shoulders were balls of flashing white noise. I gave up the bat and held out my wrists, but no one would cuff me. My cop just smiled, shook his head, then walked me to his car with a hand on my shoulder. He giggled on and off all the way to the station.

*

While the cops phoned our guardians to come pick us up, we waited in pine-scented, over-lit holding cells. The station had four. The boys were in one, and the girls in another directly opposite. The Firebird guy was in a third with a drunk, occasionally sobbing. Stevie sobbed too, sitting on the bench with her head in her hands, refusing, despite my occasional encouragements, to glance across the passage at the faces I was making in hopes of entertaining her.

What little conversation there was in our cell had mostly to do with who might have called the cops. The Strumms’ nearest neighbors were too far away to have heard the party, which everyone agreed had been relatively quiet. There hadn’t been any parked cars in the street, and the high, tarped fence surrounding the property prevented passersby from seeing inside. Some believed the one who’d dimed was Blackie—that his conspicuous absence made him “prime suspect.” Others said Blackie, evil as he was, would never talk to cops, and proposed a frame-up conceived by Jonboat, who, figuring that Blackie would catch all the blame, made the call from his carphone, or had his driver do it. Rhino Riggins, proponent number one of the Jonboat hypothesis, called out, “Hey, Stevie! Did the limo have a carphone?”

Stevie looked up, then looked back down.

I stopped making faces. I hadn’t forgotten Stevie’d been in the limo so much as I’d told myself my eyes had betrayed me. Now I knew they hadn’t—Rhino and the others had seen the same thing.

“Stevie!” Rhino said, and the guard said, “Shut it,” and all of us shut it, and I started to think about how Stevie’d looked up as soon as Rhino’d said her name, but hadn’t looked up all the times that I’d said it. And I started to think that maybe part of the reason she was so upset was that she knew I’d seen her getting out of the limo, and she knew it hurt me, and she hadn’t wanted to hurt me, and now she was ashamed and couldn’t bear to face me. And then I started thinking that maybe it was even better than that: maybe it was more like she knew that I’d seen her stepping out of the limo and assumed that it looked to me like something it wasn’t, something that would hurt me, but she figured that since I’d already assumed that it was that hurtful something, I wouldn’t believe her if she told me it was something else entirely. (She would think that I wouldn’t believe her, I thought, because she believed that no one ever believed her, which was something I might have remembered her saying once—“No one ever believes me!”—though I couldn’t be sure; that could have been another sad girl we went to school with, or maybe a girl I’d seen on TV; it could have been a thing that a lot of girls had said.) And so the whole situation could have very well seemed just as hopeless to Stevie as it would have if the something in question had been the hurtful kind.

And maybe that was the reason she hadn’t looked up at me.

I wanted to tell her that nothing was hopeless if the something wasn’t hurtful; that I’d believe whatever she said about what happened between her and Jonboat inside the limo. If it turned out what happened between them did hurt me, then I wanted to tell her I’d eventually recover, we’d still be friends, I thought Jonboat was nice, I’d be his friend too, we’d all be friends, and that I wished the both of them nothing but the best, and only hoped that she’d been able to enjoy the murder before everything got ruined by whoever called the cops.

“Stevie!” I said.

“I said, ‘Shut it!’ ” said the guard.

 

A couple minutes later, Sally-Jay Strumm, Stevie’s eight-year-old sister, trailed a pair of coffee-sipping cops up the passage. Beside Sally-Jay, his arm around her shoulders, was a biker with hair dyed blacker than his leathers, and tattooed teardrops wrinkling in his crow’s-feet.

“Go on, now,” the biker said to Sally-Jay.

Mean eyes welling, she told us, “I’m sorry. It was me who called the cops. I’m sorry, okay?”

“Why’d you do it?” we said. “Why’d you tell?” “Why’d you do it?”

“I’m just—I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Despite her refusal to elucidate her motives—some of us would later conjecture love of swingset, others a penchant for do-goody meddling, and others yet boredom plus fierce sibling rivalry—we all said we forgave her. What else could we say? She was there with that biker, and we’d seen our share of movies. We knew what those tattooed teardrops meant.

The biker patted Sally-Jay on the head, whispered, “Good job,” to her, and said to the rest of us, “Calling pigs on pals isn’t something Strumms do. Calling pigs on anyone. A Strumm wants help, that Strumm calls Strumms. I don’t know what my granddaughter here was thinking, but I know she’ll never pull this fink shit again. So don’t hold it against her, kids. You live you learn—Sally-Jay, and also the rest of you too. But learn the right lesson. Not the one they’re teaching. Not ‘Don’t have a party. You are not free,’ but, ‘Finking wrecks fun. Finking makes trouble.’ And don’t be afraid of them. They got nothing on you. Trust me. I know. I didn’t get this far in life by—”

“Please stop,” said Stevie, standing before him. While the coffee-sipping cops had eye-rolled and smirked behind their Styrofoam cups through her grandfather’s discourse, the one playing guard had brought her out from the girls cell.

“Wait,” Grandpa Strumm said. “What’s on your neck, there? Your neck got a bruise? What happened to your neck?”

What he saw was a hickey. Unmistakably a hickey. Unmistakably, that is, unless you hated policemen and refused to imagine someone sucking on the girl from whose neck the thing blossomed, in which case you might mistake it, I suppose, for a thumb-shaped welt inflicted by policemen.

“Pigs grab you?” he said. “Fucks choke your neck?”

Stevie flashed a look at the cops who stood behind him. Though timed about as badly as a look can be timed, it was not a look of implication, but appeal. “Forgive him,” begged the look, or maybe, “Please take us out of here.”

Grandpa Strumm spun around and socked the nearest cop, who had his cup to his lips. It was a glorious punch, overhanded with a windup. It was Sonny Corleone beating Carlo by the garbage. Telegraphed for miles, and still it connected. A wall of coffee went as high as the ceiling, twin spurts of blood raced in arcs to get through it, and the queasy crunching and muted snaps—of collapsing nose bridge, violated Styrofoam, the severance of tendons via shattering wristbone—rang the tiles on the walls of the cells as the fluids splashed down and puddled in the grouting.

The old man roared and fell to his knees, cradling his arm. The punched cop sat on the floor, tilted forward. The cop who still had his coffee dropped his coffee, unholstered his baton, raised it over his head. Stevie and the guard-cop both yelled something—“No!” or “Don’t!”—and the cop saw us seeing him and lowered the baton. He and the guard-cop put the biker in the empty cell—dragged him there, really, while he shouted for a doctor—and the punched cop went through the door on all fours. Sally-Jay and Stevie were removed from the passage.

My mother arrived about ten seconds later.

*

She asked if I was hurt, and I told her I wasn’t. She leaned in closer and asked if I was sure. I said I was sure. She signed some forms, jammed the carbons into her purse, accepted my bat from the cop behind the desk, nodded once, stiffly, when he bid her good night, and I followed her out to the car in silence, trying to discern the right way to say sorry, as afraid to admit to an offense she didn’t know about (the cops had called her while I was in holding; I had no idea what they had or hadn’t told her) as I was to inadvertently vandalize her mood.

She started the engine, but kept us in park. She rolled down the window and lit up a Quill. I wasn’t yet a smoker, but could see the advantages. Cigarettes helped you wait for the next thing, allowed you to move and hold your ground all at once. They were patience in a box. I’d have to go first.

“I don’t know how to start,” I said.

“I’ll bet.”

I said, “I’m sorry I worried you, and I’m sorry you had to come here to pick me up, but you know that already, you have to know that, so that means you want me to be sorry for other stuff, or else you’d just be glad I was safe. You wouldn’t be all quiet and disappointed like this.”

“What about the swingset?”

“It was just this stupid thing,” I said.

“What kind of stupid thing?”

||Won’t you oil the spring of my clicker?|| said my seatbelt.

I undid the seatbelt. I threw it off my body and exhaled groanily in order to give my mother the impression that I’d been uncomfortable since putting it on, that I’d been doing my best to tolerate the discomfort, but had just now become too overwhelmed to stand it. For more than half a year—ever since the booth at the Olive Garden spoke—mini-tantrums like this had been my go-to cover-up for abruptly breaking contact with inans that wanted to talk at inconvenient moments. Witnesses would assume I was weird and irritable, but I doubt they ever figured I was hearing voices.

My mother wasn’t the least bit alarmed. She even seemed annoyed, relentlessly flicking her Quill against the ashtray. The tantrum must have looked like a time-buying maneuver. “Were you drunk?” she said. “Did you take any drugs?”

“Of course not,” I said.

“ ‘Of course not’?” she said. “You went to a party with people who were. Who did.”

“You’re right,” I said. “And I shouldn’t have been around those kinds of people. I’m sorry for that. I won’t hang out with them anymore. I should have said that to begin with, and I’m sorry I didn’t.”

“Aren’t they your friends?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. But I see what you mean, and there were lots of people there, so I guess I shouldn’t say I’ll never hang out with anyone who drinks or uses drugs in case some of them are my friends, because it’s no good to abandon friends who have problems, and if they’re doing those things, like drugs and drinking, then it means they have problems, so what I should really say is I won’t hang out with anyone while they’re drinking or using drugs. And so that’s what I’m saying.”

“That’s just what I want to hear, though, isn’t it?”

“I hope so,” I said. “I really want you to stop being disappointed in me.”

“Well explain the swingset. That seems like a pretty drunk thing to do.”

“I told you,” I said.

“You didn’t tell me anything except that you were at a party where there were drugs and drinking and that you want me to stop being upset about that. How can I trust you? Make sense of it for me.”

“I didn’t know it would be that kind of party,” I said. “I should have. I’m sorry. But I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t even care. I just like that girl Stevie is the only reason I went. I wanted to see her.”

“The girl who threw the party? You like that girl, Belt? Is that what you’re telling me?”

Her guard had come down, just like that. I’d shown vulnerability and she’d realized her error: I hadn’t been hiding what she’d feared I’d been hiding—just a healthy, old-fashioned American crush. All at once we were players in a family sitcom.

“So what?” I said. “Don’t make a thing out of it.”

“Well,” my mom said, “okay. Okay. But Belt, this girl—I know you probably don’t want to hear what your mom has to say about girls, but if you like her…If you like her, Belt, it’s not a good idea to wreck her property. I’m sure it got her attention, but there’s more than one kind of attention, and I don’t think the kind you got is the kind you wanted. It’s not very attractive, breaking things.”

“She asked me to,” I said.

“Come on,” my mom said. “Why would she do that?”

“It’s just this stupid thing,” I said.

She reached across the car, touched my neck, and it was nice. The instant comfort it provided also made me self-conscious, though—despite all the prime time I’d spent in front of them, I hated family sitcoms—so I played the troubled teen who refused to be pacified. I jerked toward the door, away from her hand, pressed my temple to the window. That wasn’t right either. Why would anyone reject his loving mother’s affection? Why did any of it have to be the way it was? You either aimed for Ferris Bueller or Dallas Winston—which, on its own, was bad enough—but in the first case you’d end up coming off like Ricky Stratton, maybe even Mike Seaver, and in the second case Cockroach or Boner Stabone. By you, I mean I. At least for a while, ca. 1987. At least until she died.

“Sorry,” I said, leaning back in her direction. Her hand was gone, though. Her hand was on the parking brake.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I know. You’re embarrassed. You don’t have to be embarrassed. I, for one, think it’s great you like a girl, even if she throws parties where kids get drunk. And she wasn’t drunk, was she? I saw her at the station. She looked upset. Sober and upset. And she was pretty, by the way. If I were a boy, I might like her myself. Assuming she’s as kind and fun as pretty. You’ve got really great taste. At least in looks. Oh dear, I’m just embarrassing you more. Baby, listen. Show me your face. Come on. Look at your mother. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I used to have crushes, too. I had a crush on your father—it turned out great! Take my advice, though: don’t wreck things for girls. Just be yourself. You’re a sweetheart, you’re so smart, and you’re also very handsome. If they don’t like you for who you are, Belt, they’re not good enough for you. And I know you might have trouble believing that because it’s coming from me, who of course can’t imagine how any girl wouldn’t fall madly in love with you, and you know that, so let me say it another way: if they don’t like you for who you are, it just won’t work. It’s doomed. It’s not meant to be. Give up. Find another girl. Love shouldn’t be painful. Belt? Okay?”

“Uch,” I said, less from aspirationally Buellerish insolence—much less from disgust—than from an inability to say anything else; I had to choke back tears. She thought we were bonding, having a moment, becoming closer, and I was hiding so much from her, actively blinding her, abusing the newly rediscovered trust she was so relieved not to have lost in me after all.

“Sure, ‘uch,’ ” she said. “I understand you have to act this way. I remember what that’s like. But I really hope that you can hear what I’m saying. You’ll be an adult before you know it. It’s time to start practicing at being a good one. To do that, you have to accept who you are. That’s the only way to live a good life, okay?”

I nodded, kept swallowing. She started to drive.

“Listen,” she said. “Your father doesn’t, I don’t think, really need to hear about this. He was at poker when they called, and he’ll be there til late, and I don’t see any reason why we should upset him. You didn’t do anything bad in the end, except for that silliness with the swingset, and even that—I admit, it is a little romantic, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. I guess doing anything loud to impress a girl…I don’t know. But the police said they won’t bring charges against you and, from what they told me, I don’t imagine the Strumms will either. I think they’ll actually find themselves in a bit of trouble for leaving those girls home alone like that. So we’ll just keep all of this between you and me. Now I’m going to smoke one more cigarette while you dry your eyes and remember you love me and, in the meantime, I say we get some McDonald’s and forget about all of this. Dinner almost seems like yesterday, doesn’t it?”

The weighty part of the episode was over, the love expressed, the wisdom imparted. Accept yourself. All will be well. Swingset shmingset, you’re better than that. At the drive-thru window, we used words like extra ketchups and Sprite. You couldn’t stay solemn, let alone morose, while the credits ascended the frozen frame and the singerless version of the theme song played. By you I mean I. “McNuggets,” we said. “Chocolatey chip.” When she winked at me over her straw, I smiled.

*

Copyright 2020 by Adam Levin, from the novel BUBBLEGUM, to be published April 14 by Doubleday, reprinted with permission of the Wylie Agency.

Adam Levin

Adam Levin is the author of the novel, The Instructions (2010), and the short story collection, Hot Pink (2012), both published by McSweeney’s. He was the winner of the 2011 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and the Indie Booksellers Choice Award, as well as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

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