A tree stump sets this cluster of trees apart from the rest. The flatlands don't often grow trees to be ten feet in diameter, and the soil is no lnoger rich enough around these parts to support a tree of such proportion. Back when Usher was "discovered" by a small group of quasi-intellectuals from the local high school, the tree had still been standing, though most of the branches were already deadwood. They dubbed it "The House of Usher" because of a malformation in the trunk that resembled (in their collectively stoned opinion) the fissure that must have marred the face of the Poe's famous mansion. The tree is gone now, along with the youth of those high school kids who swayed in its wide branches contemplating death and other aspects of life. But the name stuck, most of it anyway.
In the wide open field just beyond this cluster of trees, which marks the end of a narrow dirt road, is a place where the grass is strewn with beer cans and empty cigarette packs. Many momentous events have been forgotten by the multitude of stumbling teenagers who stagger around a crackling bonfire fire swearing that these are the best times of their lives.
Mike Boulder rolled his little Toyota pick-up three months ago; he's dead. The teenage population went a record three days without driving intoxicated. Dewey Dent broke the fast by driving down main street in his big Chevy half-ton truck with two kegs of free-beer-in-memory-of-poor-dead-Mike.
"C'mon guys, Mike wouldn't have wanted us to stop living just because he's dead."
"Yeah, he was soooo unselfish."
"We need to have a party in memory of Mike."
"Cool. Let's go to Usher. That's the way he would have wanted us to celebrate him."
They dedicated an entire night to memories, cleared the collective conscience, and effectively wrapped up the grieving process. Since then, life has gone back to normal. Mike is forgotten.
"If you shoot him, I'll laugh." Joe sputters out words and spittle impartially. He is a big guy, a starting linebacker on the football team. He and his companion are standing next to the fire. His left side is uncomfortably warm; his right side is uncomfortably cold.
"If I shoot him, I'll laugh harder," replies his companion, a short, stocky guy wearing tight Wranglers and a light brown western style button-up shirt. "Why, his brains would just go splattering all over the fire."
Joe totters on his feet, grinning stupidly and trying to think of something funny to say. He wonders briefly if Dewey is also suffering from uneven campfire heating discomfort.
"I guess I'll have to shoot him, then," says Dewey before Joe gets a chance to say anything. Dewey looks at Joe for a moment. "I need another beer," he says, and he walks off.
Joe unsuccessfully fights a chill, then turns away to mingle with other partygoers. He wanders in no particular direction, listening to twigs snap under his feet and looking for somebody else to talk to. He will tell them how funny it would be if someone shot that blonde guy standing by himself on the other side of the fire. He vaguely wonders whether brains are too wet to burn. The thought of it makes him chuckle again, and, suddenly thirsty, he heads over to his big green Impala to grab the last beer from his six-pack.
As he walks across the big tree stump, he tries for the hundredth time to imagine what this tree must have looked like towering over its siblings. He is looking up, not paying attention to the precarious footing of decaying wood. He steps on the edge of a five or six inch drop caused by the jagged cut that had felled the tree so long ago. The little ledge gives way with a quiet crunch making Joe lose his balance. He falls forward, catching himself with his hands. He lays on his stomach, his head filled with visions of a homeless spirit laughing at his clumsiness, his hands clenched tightly around handfuls of dead wood. For a moment he is unable to move, then, regaining his senses, he pulls himself to his feet, looks around to make sure no one saw him, and hurries again toward his car.
The rather large (as in fluffy and jiggly large) depressed Brad had planted himself exactly fifteen feet from the fire pit with a twelve pack of Miller High Life bottles within arms length two hours ago. He has just finished number ten. He tosses the empty bottle up over his head with a practiced nonchalance. The stranger standing to his left and closer to the fire looks at him quizzically as the bottle flies up through the lower branches of a tree and lands on the ground without so much as shattering. He pulls number eleven out of the box and twists off the cap with his callused fingers, purposely ignoring the stranger.
He is bitter. There was a time when he was the life of every party. He played football once. He even dated one of the cheerleaders, slutty Sally Hansly (a nice girl, maybe a little insecure). Then a knee injury put him on the bench and, eventually, forced him to quit the team all together.
Sally waited an entire three weeks after he quit football to dump him. That was awfully nice of her. Of course, she only waited one week before she began dating Joe. He wasn't mad at either of them. After all, Joe is a damn good football player and a great guy; you have to respect that. But I don't have to like it, he tells himself as he takes another sip.
Then came the weight. Back in ninth grade science class, Mr. Canter explained how fat cells move into unused muscles and set up permanent residency. It happened all at once, but not right away. He remembers the first time he noticed that his pants were a little tight, and that his triceps drooped when he held out his arm. It worried him only a little at the time, but he hadn't realized how serious it would get. He still considered himself to be an active guy. He went out all the time; he had a very active social life. But, that didn't compare to the hours of workout that went into being a defensive end. One day he looked in the mirror, and he realized that he was no longer stocky, or chubby, or even obese. He was fat. He hated that.
"..and then she says to me ‘why don't we go to my place and--"
"Oh! You didn't!" Poodle interrupts with his usual jealous enthusiasm, his black curly hair bobbing up and down, punctuating every word.
Mark looks at him and nods his head slowly then looks over to where Meredith sits necking heavily with her boyfriend. "Watch this." He gets up, lets out a raunchy belch, smoothes down his greasy hair, and walks toward the cute brunette and her unsuspecting boyfriend.
Poodle can barely contain himself. He notices the way Mark is holding himself: deliberately steady, arms down to his sides and slightly away from his body, a fighting stance if he ever saw one. He sits back to watch the fun, ready to jump in should Mark need help.
It's a good night for Dewey. Meredith finally showed up and they didn't argue. He just finished talking to Joe when she pulled up in a car with several friends. He had been relieved that that prick Mark wasn't with her. Mark is new in town and he's been hanging around with Poodle, which is a sure sign of trouble. Dewey was at Meredith's about a week ago when Mark called. He answered the phone, and when the voice he recognized as Mark's asked for Meredith, he slammed it back down. When he asked Meredith about it, she got an attitude. They didn't talk again until last night when she called and asked him to meet her tonight at the party.
They still haven't talked. She walked up to him and kissed him passionately without so much as a hello. They stood for awhile before eventually making their way to the big tree stump to sit down. She buries her guilt under a mask of passion, apologizing with every kiss. He knows only his right hand anchored on her waist and his left hand mapping unexplored territory.
That's when he hears the voice: "Is Meredith there?" Only that's not what it says. It says, "Hey, Meredith, can we talk?" But, it's not a can-we-talk tone. It's a "Hey, Meredith, baby, can we talk?" tone. It's a tone that confesses--no, it gloats of a something more than talk. Dewey jumps up, spinning into consciousness from one direction and spinning right back out another. During a brief period of sober thought, he sees the stranger standing by the fire, staring at him. Then he is fighting.
Dewey's fist slams into Marks nose. The crack can be heard clearly by everyone around. Dewey kicks Mark in the stomach, in the face, in the stomach some more. Meredith screams. Dewey hits the ground face first with the small, but lithe, Poodle punching him over and over in the back. After a startled moment he is up on his hand and knees with Poodle clinging to his back yelling and punching, trying in vain to keep him from getting up. Poodle is no match for Dewey, but Dewey doesn't count on Mark getting up off the ground so quickly. He has no way to defend himself when Mark kicks him in the stomach. The pain explodes through his abdomen and makes its way to his chest. He falls on his stomach, unable breathe. So this is what it's like to die, he thinks as the world turns black.
Joe is a large (as in sturdy and muscular large) guy. He pushes Mark down, pulls Poodle off Dewey, and, still holding Poodle by the collar, tells them to disappear. Poodle leaves right away, his curly pubic looking hair bouncing as he runs toward his car. Mark stands up, brushes off his pants, and stalks away as fast as his pride will let him. Joe isn't paying any attention to them; he is rolling Dewey's limp form over onto his back. Dewey's breath comes in short rapid bursts, but it seems to be steadying out. He'll be fine. Joe looks around and spots Dewey's little brother in the crowd of staring faces surrounding him.
"Hey, Rod. You rode out here with Dewey right?"
"Here's my keys, let's lay him down in the back seat of my car and you can drive him home. I'll take his truck when I leave.
Brad had watched the whole seen from his seat by the fire. That piece of white trash Mark deserved an ass whipping, but Joe's too good a guy to take on an unfair fight, even when he's mostly drunk. Brad finishes off number eleven and tosses the bottle back to join the other ten. As he listens for it to hit the ground he looks up to see if the stranger is looking at him again. The stranger is no longer standing by the fire. He must have gone over to see the fight. Brad grabs number twelve, which by now is lukewarm, and opens it. He scans the area looking for the stranger's blonde head. There is no sign of it. He wonders, suddenly very curious, why a stranger would come here anyway. He must have heard Joe and Dewey talking about shooting him. Hell, he was only standing twenty feet away from them when Dewey was talking about it. Dewey wasn't exactly talking quietly either. If I was him, I would have left a long time ago, he thinks, Usher is no place for strangers.
"...and now I just don't know what to do. I mean, I love Dewey, but Mark--Oh, hi Joe." Joe stops and blinks a couple of times to clear his vision. He had found Dewey's beer stashed in the toolbox of his truck. After downing one beer in two drinks, he started on another, which is now about half gone. He stops and is about to apologize when he realizes that he has found who he is looking for.
"Ready to go, Meredith?"
"Oh, not yet." She is still distressed. "Joe, this is Tommy Wilson. He's a friend of my cousin's. He called to tell me that he would be passing through on his way to college and that he could use a place to crash for the night. I completely forgot about it until I saw him. He called my cousin after he showed and I wasn't there. Lucky for him, I brought my cousin out here when he visited last month." She turns to the blonde stranger who she was talking to when Joe walked up, "I guess you came on kind of a bad night."
"So, you don't need a ride?" Joe asked.
"No, Tommy has his car, and he's crashing at my place anyway."
Joe takes his first real look at Tommy. He is dressed in expensive department store clothes, the kind where each outfit runs two hundred bucks plus another couple hundred for the shoes. The hair appears to be a natural blonde, but Joe isn't completely sure. He has some kind of styling gel in it that makes it look wet.
Tommy notices Joe eyeing him, "You're not still planning to shoot me are you?" His voice has a slight southern accent.
Joe laughed. "Oh, you heard that? Well, that was Dewey, not me, and he's indisposed right now." Joe isn't sure that indisposed is the right word, but it sounds fancy, and he feels like he needs to use big words right now.
"That's good," replies Tommy. He seems truly relieved. Joe smiles and walks away. He feels nature calling
Brad still sits fifteen feet away from the fire. He has not moved since he arrived. He has not talked to anyone since he's been here. A stranger stood less than twenty feet away from him for over an hour, and he didn't so much as nod at the poor guy. He had seen Mark walking toward Dewey and Meredith. He could tell that Mark was looking for trouble. He had seen Poodle jump up and run to where Dewey was kicking Mark on the ground; he could've yelled to Dewey, told him to look out, but he didn't. Instead, he did what he has been doing since he got here, what he is still doing. He holds up his bottle and stares at it, slowly losing his taste for beer.