Fiction

Cowan

No matter how ordinary it got, it always felt like something else was going on

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

Cowan was beautiful.

I wouldn’t admit it back then, but he was. Had a face like Gregory Peck at a time when the rest of us were still working off our puppy fat. Hair the colour of those aerial wheat field shots you see on TV when election season rolls around. Even his body was tighter and more muscular than any of ours, and we all noticed. He was better than us.

I saw him recently, while visiting my father, who had been shuffled back into the job that brought Cowan and me together in the first place. It was pretty unbearable to be there with my father, so I was making up lots of tasks and chores throughout the week—going to industrial parks and garages, and to a Sunday flea market at a shopping plaza. I spotted Cowan right away, perusing tables of handmade junk and tole-painted knick-knacks, picking up items and putting them back, smelling banana loaves and tenderly squeezing baked goods in their plastic wrapping. He was with a woman who had a child in a sarong, and I was impressed by the fact that he seemed wholly intact, like nothing bad had ever happened to him or to me or between us. I had a scar around my mouth and chin and one through my eyebrow that was pretty obvious. But we smiled at each other. He must’ve had scars too.

I first met him when we moved into the subdivision. He came over wearing a blue velvet track suit and white sneakers, all of it (and him) immaculately clean. He smiled and pointed out how close his great big house was to our great big house. Said we could be friends if I wanted. I remember being put off by that.

My father was too.

He was having a cigarette and watching the movers take everything out of the truck. He took his eyes off his property long enough to turn and make a face at Cowan. The one when he sees somebody and decides they didn’t work hard enough to get where they are. The same face he’d make if a fruity guy was vamping around on TV. The same face he’d given my mother, moments earlier, for pointing out a minor flaw in the house’s design. It didn’t seem like something he could help.

I think Cowan could’ve had a lot of friends, if he wasn’t always trying so hard. He had all the necessary components, but there was something a little too desperate about him, a lack of stability that turned his virtues into faults. Something small, way down inside him, pleading:

Please like me.

My father—who spent his life with men in warehouses and shipyards and later in boardrooms—could hear it coming from Cowan, loud and clear. But I wasn’t yet aware that friendship was a choice, that you didn’t just have to go along when someone expressed interest in you. I hadn’t yet learned what to do with the different feelings that people gave me—what they meant or what it said about me that I was feeling them.

So when I spent time with Cowan, I was embarrassed for him. Embarrassed when he’d say things like how nice it was to spend time with me, and then give me a look like he really meant it. Embarrassed that he’d admit to being scared of all kinds of things—people and places and what might be out in the woods. Embarrassed that he’d speak the truth about any powerful feeling he had. We could be having a perfectly ordinary time, and then all at once he’d take it too far. Want too much out of me or else give me too much of himself, and say it within earshot of my father.

I wish our lives were like how a movie is, with wonderful things happening all the time.

That first day, we walked around the neighbourhood, and he showed me the wasteland where the subdivision ended, where a smashed-up excavator was left among craters and dirt and blasted rock, all inside a valley of wrecked trees. The subdivision was less than a decade old—the wilderness carved up and developed by a contractor over a matter of weeks to make our houses—and that place was where they just stopped building and called it a day. Cowan stood at the edge and talked about how he hated it there, said it felt like something scared all the workers away. He said it was like that same something was waiting for him back there. And he was probably right. With no one watching, and with him making me feel that way, there was no telling what I might’ve done to him out there.

Cowan had two guys he called friends, Holbrook and Rosenbaum.

They’d known each other since they were little kids, and they all kind of had the same way about them, like guilty dogs slinking along a wall. I first saw them in pictures at Cowan’s house, photos from his birthdays. Over the years, they developed shoulders and awkward smiles and discomfort with themselves and each other until they were standing as far apart as you possibly could to have your photographs taken.

Rosenbaum was one of those people who regularly vocalize any horrible thought that occurs to them, about anyone and to anyone. Even people who thought he was funny knew better than to think of him as a friend. He held positions on various student councils but didn’t seem to represent anyone or anything beyond himself and his need for attention, to speak and be heard.

Holbrook was an adopted kid who was sickly. He had one of those deformed arms like a baked potato pushing out of his shoulder, something that everyone was too polite to ever make fun of him for. He had in him a desperation to please others, a need to make you like him, all of which made him into a pest and a joker and a mimic. I’d sometimes see him in other circles, and I was impressed by the way he could integrate himself, adopt mannerisms and posture and demeanours. Rosenbaum wanted the same but also to be admired and feared.

I was just as bad, or worse.

The first time I hung out with the three of them, they just stood around the playground at the bottom of the street and said shit about Cowan. His breath, his clothes, his personality. Cowan got this dumb look on that pretty face and just shuffled around. Climbed on this or that. Chucked a rock every now and then, waiting for the conversation to move on to something else. He’d look around a lot, and I always imagined he was keeping an eye out for his real friends, like they were waiting for him out in the wilderness or on the horizon, because that’s how I felt. It was like my adult self and the way things ought to be were looming, tangible forces—ready to swoop in and replace everything—though what exactly I’d get to become was mostly unknown. My father moved us around too often for me to ever really have friends or learn much about myself, and so I carried with me only a vague idea of the life that was owed to me.

I remember wondering if maybe this life was the one. If this was happiness, and this was friendship. If the four of us had gotten what we deserved with each other and our fathers and their jobs and this square kingdom, seated in forest and dirt. The question turned, over time, onto its side, where it came to rest as something I believed without any consideration.

Cowan had a sister.

At school, he’d go over and hang out with her, even though she was younger and nobody really did that. They seemed to get along. When he was with her, we’d wait, off to the side, stealing glances. He seemed okay when he was with her.

They were both the offspring of the same kind of trophy wife as my mother, and so she was like Cowan. Beautiful. Big Farrah Fawcett hair, huge blue eyes like a cartoon animal. Perpetually in tennis outfits, often or seemingly bra-less. Unreasonably long legs.

Holbrook and Rosenbaum would say she was a whore, that she’d slept with all of us. That she was a hooker who went out on the 401 to flag down truckers and blow them at rest stops. That she fucked our fathers in a nearby tree house. One time Rosenbaum told Cowan he’d raped and killed her. She was face down in a landfill, out past Trenton.

Holbrook even held up a piece of yellow nylon rope he’d found and said it was a lock of her hair.

The first time I met her, I was in the passenger seat of Cowan’s car. She was walking on the sidewalk in a one-piece romper that I remember because it was low-cut and revealing and rode up but made her look weirdly childlike at the same time. Cowan put my window down and talked to her over me.

I had never been that close to a woman, let alone her. That mane of hair was hanging inside the car. Her mouth was inches away from mine. And I could smell her. Her shampoo and her deodorant, but also her breath and sweat. I remember staring straight ahead, terrified, but wanting to look at her, wanting to take control of her body and make her turn her head and look at me. I felt trapped inside my own body but also lost in the space between our bodies, in the gulf created by my inability to do anything.

When Cowan and she were done talking about borrowing the family car and going to some party, she waved goodbye to us. All of us smiled and said it back to her in unison like a classroom directed to do so. I remember the fury that filled up inside me when I heard the sound of my own weak voice echoing after her.

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

Holbrook had this old dog chain he kept in his pocket for when Cowan said something dumb. He’d whip him with it across the back of his legs or his ass. You could do that kind of thing and everyone would laugh. You could leave serious marks or welts and even he’d laugh.

So I went along with it.

I’d berate him and do exactly what I’d wanted to do when I first met him. I’d flick his hat off his head or push him down. Tell him mid-sentence to shut the fuck up. I’d ask to see his notes from school and then tear them up in his face. One time I burned him with a lighter right through the back of his shirt, and a bit of that golden hair went up in the process and stunk up his father’s Audi.

The day I met his sister, after we pulled away, I hit him.

It was the first time I’d hit him, or anybody. Right away, when my hand came off the side of his head—with a sound like a salesman at the door—I could feel vitality pouring into me from somewhere. I was addicted.

Then I did it again, and the others joined in without needing to be asked, Rosenbaum wrapping an arm around his neck from behind and Holbrook bellowing in his ear as loud as he could.

I put his hazards on and hit him again. One more time after that and his ear was red and burning hot.

I told him to watch where he was fucking going.

It was sunny, and there was a nice breeze coming in through the window, and everyone was laughing—even Cowan, whose high spirits, in that moment, seemed unshakable.

I spent a lot of my time in those pits Cowan showed me, and if I wasn’t there, I was in the forest that ran behind our backyards. It was important to me, especially then, to be alone.

Today, the subdivision has fewer trees, but after the sun goes down it looks the same as it ever did. A few televisions glowing, a few pale porch lights, and a sea of blackness. The township has the most break-ins and home invasions in the province, and my father’s subdivision leads the pack, and this is why. After dark, five steps into that band of trees and you were invisible to the houses, though you could see everything going on inside.

I spent hours watching whatever I could see in their windows: families around televisions, fathers smoking on balconies, men with drinks around billiard tables, mothers baking in kitchens and talking on phones, the odd person in their bedroom with the lights on. I didn’t know most of the people I was watching, but that wasn’t why I was there. It was simpler than that. I just wanted to see what kinds of people were in the other houses. Wanted to see the things they were doing. When I’d watch the Cowan household, I’d try my best to spot what it was that made him so weak. Squinting and staring, judging what I saw against my own home.

My father would make me stand up when he spoke to me. And though he paced around and raised and lowered his voice, asking questions, I wasn’t to look him in the eye. It started as something he did when I was in trouble, but when we moved to the subdivision he did it all the time. He would just ask me ordinary questions like a father might ask at the dinner table, about my day and my chores, but he’d do it circling me like I was a mannequin in a department store. Sometimes the questions would get strange. I remember thinking more than once that he was losing his mind.

One time he asked if I was just a man in a suit—or what?

I knew from watching our neighbours that no one else had to go through anything like this. Standing and listening to the story of how my father became his own man, and how he grew up—him and five brothers—in a shed. How they’d have three meals a week. Not a day. Three meals a week, and the rest of the time they had to fend for themselves.

Do you understand what that was like?

He had a glass stir stick with a flag on the end that he put in every one of his drinks, and he’d brandish it at me, at vulnerable places like my neck or my temple or near my eyes. I’d be so furious and powerless and sick with myself that my arms and legs would feel weak, like all the blood had risen out of me and gone someplace else. I had to stand and listen to him talk about what “stages” I was going through and what was wrong with them (and me). Listen to him talk about how I wasn’t doing my part, about how I was a coward who had everything and had earned none of it.

And he was right.

My father did this even crazier thing with mom, where he’d get her to dance for him.

He’d say, “Let’s have a dance,” and even with me sitting right there in the living room, she’d have to do this cha-cha dance in her slippers, with this horrible look on her face. Stop whatever she was doing, get up, and dance. I didn’t need any directions to keep from making eye contact with her; I felt so bad for her I could barely sit near her on the couch. Sometimes she’d have to make him a drink first, and then he’d sit there, holding it tight like it was going to get away while she stood before him. The worst was when he’d tell her to go get ready, and she’d have to go up to their bedroom while he finished his drink. One time I watched her “go get ready” from my hiding spot and saw her in her red pantsuit, sitting at the edge of the bed, staring forward with her hands on her knees, waiting for what was coming.

The company my father worked for was the same one that employed everybody on our street. It was the entire reason for the subdivision’s existence. The whole block was full of men like him. Men who worked all the time and got lots of calls from the office and seemed very important. My biggest fear was that there was someone else like me—someone who wanted to see what was going on inside the boss’s house—who might see how fucked up we were. I’d stand in my room sometimes, staring out the window, down at the black woods, trying hard to see if anyone was watching us.

I should say that there were moments of peace between the four of us, when we drove around in Cowan’s car and had nothing but ordinary things to say to each other. Times when you’d turn up the radio because there was a good song on. Put the windows down and hang a leg out. Play basketball on a sunny day and manage to go an entire afternoon without so much as one elbow thrown. Go swimming and throw Holbrook’s little brown body around in a way that wasn’t cruel or condescending in the least. But you remember and really hold on to the stuff that makes you feel bad. Guilt can take up so much room it rents space where good memories ought to be. Crowds them out.

And no matter how ordinary it got, it always felt like something else was going on. It had been going on for years before I got there, between him and them, but now I was a part of it, and making it worse, making it happen faster. Even in those happy moments, I was always looking at his sunny face, because I could see it in there. I know the others were too. We were getting ready. We didn’t have words for it, and we couldn’t even tell you what it was at the time, but I think it was this: For all the shit we took from our parents and teachers and each other, none of us ever got fed up or lashed out. But maybe Cowan could.

Maybe Cowan could, and he’d do something amazing.

Things were worse when we were drinking. Whenever there was alcohol involved, it meant that anything that would otherwise remain only a threat could actually happen. It could turn an empty little joke into an event. Cowan would do things like cross the highway—the one that produced more dead deer than we could count—and do it blindfolded, then with his pants down, and then amid a hail of rocks and bottles that ricocheted off his body or burst on the pavement. All of us trying so hard to make him fall.

Then I started to get sick all the time.

I was sick and wouldn’t go to school, and my father was furious with me. I had a fever that would come and go and nausea that could come on so fast they thought for a while that I had an ulcer. It was like something that had been filling up in me, little by little. Like an internal organ that was swollen or leaking or something. I was prescribed pills, but I didn’t know exactly what for. It felt like something was broken, and I even said that to the doctor, and he pressed his hands into me, right around my hip.

I remember thinking it was somewhere around there.

I stopped seeing Cowan and the other two. I got better by building a routine that kept me on my own, just like it had been when I first arrived. I was in the woods when I wasn’t at school, and against the hallway walls between classes. I would get into the clouds of kids waiting for buses and take the long way home in that stupid, screaming mess, but feel safe and sane and healthy.

The pits weren’t enough for me anymore, and I skipped them completely. I would go through the trees until I hit the highway, cross without looking, and keep going on the other side. Train tracks and swamps and things I’d never seen before.

When my father told me we were moving again, I was staying home from school, so he made me get out of bed and stand up. He explained all the reasons I wasn’t going to get anywhere in life like this. With this “mind frame” and attitude and ability. A lot of what he said was about me being spoiled rotten. It got louder and more confusing until he was shouting in my face that he wasn’t sure if I should be allowed to drink his water.

Then my father went across the hall and into the bathroom.

He turned the tap on and off a couple of times. Shouted at me about his water from there. When he filled up a glass and brought it into the room to show it to me, I realized for the first time that he wasn’t crazy. I just didn’t know what kinds of things he was seeing in the water, that’s all. He held it to the light and looked hard for something that he’d done, or that had been done to him.

During the worst of my illness, my mother took me to get my driver’s licence. When I paid the fees and wrote the test and took the eye exam, they got me to look down into that machine and search out the little green dots. That’s when I saw him.

Cowan.

I saw Cowan’s face, way down in the machine.

This was after I had gone too far, long after I had stopped seeing them. After I had pushed past the membrane of his windows and begun trespassing in the Cowan house. Going in through the garage and the side door that was never locked, crawling through the blue light of the TV, past his blacked-out father’s bald head and hairy arms. Up to Cowan’s bedroom.

The three of us would meet up in the street and not say a word to each other before we went in, but the first time I’d gone by myself. I’d watched him for a while, trying to decide what to do. Maybe hide in his closet, jump out and scare him. Cut his hair or draw something on his face. Drop something really heavy onto his head from as high as I could hold it.

I judged the value of each action by imagining myself in his place and it being done to me instead. I remember feeling uncertain as to which position was the better one to be in. I remember thinking about his sister, on the other side of Cowan’s wall, just a door knob’s turn away from me. I remember feeling so terrified that I might break into a laughter that would destroy the silence of the house and bring the whole thing to an end.

Once the others were involved, it was even easier to get carried away. In that state, you could do absolutely anything to him. You had all the power in the world and could make anything imaginable come true. The only thing holding us back was each other and the knowledge that if we did any of it on our own, it’d be a terrible crime. Together, it was just a bit of tomfoolery. Horseplay. Acting out.

I threw up in the little ServiceOntario bathroom.

Then I had to drive my mother home in her car. These were my father’s instructions, and I followed them perfectly. I drove through noon traffic onto the same highway that I feared crossing on foot. I was afraid then, too, and my mother didn’t care one bit. She didn’t tell me what to do. Instead, she just put on makeup in the mirror and checked on it every couple of minutes. She and I hardly spoke at that point, and I can see now that she was—in her mind—already gone away from my father and this life. Her eyes were always looking out the window, at the sky, where she must’ve been beholden to no one.

I tried to stay focused, and when that didn’t work, I did the same as she was probably doing and tried to think about going somewhere new. But I was feeling bad again. There were dozens of Cowans strewn all over the road.

Cowans all duct-taped down into beds. Cowans with blood coming out of their noses or ears or scalps. Cowans hog-tied with their pants pulled down. Cowans with clothespins on the ends of their dicks and every kind of pen and pencil and marker shoved up their asses in a bunch. Cowans pleading. Cowans crying.

He phoned the house the next week, and when my mother called up the stairs for me I was paralyzed. Sitting in my room feeling more than sick, feeling like everything inside me might just shut down. I’d been working so hard to avoid him I forgot all about the fact that he could dial my number and then I’d have to hear his voice.

I called down and told my mother to hang up.

I told her we weren’t friends anymore, and I remembered thinking not only that we were never friends but also that I didn’t know what we were. There wasn’t a name for it. And whatever it was, we weren’t even that anymore.

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

The last time I saw them, it was maybe two weeks until the last day of school. Either they didn’t see me in between the trees by my house, or they ignored me.

They were all wearing that same blue track suit, jogging down the street at sunset. I had no idea what they were doing, what they were training for, but it occurred to me that of the three of them, Rosenbaum looked the most like me. It had never dawned on me before, but we were the same height and build, had similar hair, demeanours. If I were down there, wearing a blue track suit, I’d look just like him.

They didn’t notice me, or my spear, which was bright yellow on account of the electrical tape I’d covered it with, which made it possible to find it again when I threw it at a deer (or whatever) and missed. I didn’t feel the decision being made to throw it at them. Whatever thing in my body was supposed to stop me from doing it was gone. A function of the body but not the spirit.

Later, I imagined my actions had brought them into a new era, that they would become real, true friends or else be rid of each other as a result. This was a thought I went back and forth with for years, an idea I had difficulty keeping balanced, because it felt dishonest in that it alleviated my guilt, though it still could have been true, even if it was self-serving. Eventually the memory hardened and became flat, became a fact that couldn’t be manipulated any longer. A picture, like in a book:

A projectile, hung in the air above them, on a perfect descending arc.

In my weeks alone, I had changed again. I had entered a new phase to help me get through my time in the subdivision, during which I hardly spoke, spent almost no time indoors, and remained in a state of perpetual movement. Whenever I arrived somewhere, at a railway yard or a bare clearing or an interesting thicket, I felt like I had arrived too late, like I had just missed something important. But this time it felt like I was right where I was supposed to be.

In my time alone, I had learned how to control my spear completely, and this was my best throw ever. Someone looking out their living room window might’ve seen it and had their breath taken away. Cowan’s sister, maybe. It goes over a power line and comes down on a moving target. Rosenbaum sees it and makes the beginnings of a warning, but it’s already too late.

If it were a real spear and not just a railroad spike tied with string to a mop handle, it might’ve gone through him, or at least stuck in him. It was heading right for his head. There could’ve been blood and ambulances and court dates. There could’ve been something you couldn’t take back. But I was lucky. He flinched at the last moment, and it got Holbrook instead.

Bounced off his collarbone with a hard snap, like someone shutting a book. He made a sound like an animal and toppled over.

Some birds took to the air, and then I was in the woods, running on the pathway behind the houses, my reflection flashing by in basement windows. Then I was over the hill and into the pits, all of it feeling like a dream. That’s when something went wrong. I hadn’t been through the area in months and months, and everything had changed. It was like I had opened the wrong door, into a place I wasn’t ready to be yet. It looked like another world.

There weren’t pits anymore.

Just houses.

Bigger, better houses than ours. Stone houses with huge, dark windows and nobody living inside. Houses with turrets like castles and double-wide two-door garages. Pointed, wrought-iron gates that the wind seemed to whistle through. There were no people, no cars, no lawns, no roads, no street names. Just the houses, all covered in dirt and dust like they had rumbled up and out of the earth.

I could see that the houses had doors but no knobs, so nothing was stopping me from going inside. When it was over, I did exactly that. I went in and put the swollen pulp of my face onto cold poured concrete. Thought about how I’d get to be the quiet guy for my final year of school, cut my hair short and wear new clothes. Thought about the new me and imagined him lying on the floor next to me, pure and clean. The new me in the new house. Blank slates, ready to be filled in.

But that was after. First, there was the sound of something beating its way after me. A big body making a big sound, crashing through brush, all muscle and vengeance. Some amazing thing coming up that hill just for me.

So I sat down, hands on my knees, and waited for it.

This appeared in the October 2015 issue.

Kris Bertin (krisbertin.com) will publish a new collection of short stories, Bad Things Happen, in 2016.

Jillian Tamaki (jilliantamaki.com) has drawn for the New York Times, National Geographic, and The New Yorker.