The Bottoms

Dustin Heron

Newt found a dollar in the boys locker room, so after school he rode his bike to the More for Less and grabbed four off-brand Chunky Nougat Bars. He put them on the counter and the cashier, a pale young man with tattoos on his neck, said, “Dollar seventeen.”

“The sign says four for a dollar,” said Newt.

The cashier shrugged. “Taxes.”

“What a ripoff,” said Newt.

“Consider it a life lesson,” said the cashier, rolling a cigarette.

So instead Newt just bought a Snickers. His change jangled in his pockets as he rode his bike out of the parking lot and onto the bumpy trail that cut through the woods. It was a small patch of woods surrounded by quiet residential streets on three sides and a series of grey apartment complexes on the other. There was always garbage and old furniture—mattresses, broken dressers, twisted lamps—leaning against the fence behind the apartments. The fences were torn here and there where teenagers snuck away. As Newt rode through the woods he saw a man in a black coat digging away at the bottom of a soggy old recliner. The man looked up as Newt approached. Newt slowed.

“Hey,” said the man, standing, dusting his hands on the front of his jeans. He was smiling. His teeth were crooked in his mouth and his voice was all thick with some kind of accent. “Want to see something?”

“No,” said Newt, who started to pedal faster.

“It’s a puppy!” said the man, who pulled a small puppy from inside his black coat. It squirmed and sucked at the air.

Newt stopped his bike and the man walked closer. It was a very small puppy, eyes still closed. Its fur was black and its belly skin was grey and blue.

“Do you like my puppy?” said the man.

Newt shrugged. “Yeah, sure.”

“Would you like my puppy?”

“Sure,” said Newt.

“How much money you got?” said the man. The puppy kicked and wriggled.

“Thirty three cents,” said Newt.

The man snorted and put the puppy back in his coat. “Goodbye,” he said, walking back to the recliner.

Newt was asleep when his mom got home from work, and she was gone again by the time he woke up. On the counter she had left his usual lunch money, two-fifty, on top of a little note that said, “I love you!” It was the same note from the day before, but she’d added an extra couple of hearts in pink at the bottom. During second period, Newt told Charlie about the puppy and they agreed to pool their lunch money to try and buy it. After school they rode their bikes to the woods but the man wasn’t there.

The sat on their bikes looking at the garbage piled against the fence. The recliner, a torn hefty bag with clothes spilling out of it, an old dollhouse smeared with mud.

“I’m hungry,” said Charlie.

“He was messing with that recliner,” said Newt. “I wonder what he was doing?”

“Maybe he was hiding something cool,” said Charlie, brightening.

They laid their bikes down in the leaves and went to the recliner. The leaves had been cleared away beneath it and the dirt looked all fresh and soft. Rolled up into the springs of the recliner were some torn and ragged magazines. Newt pulled them out and handed them to Charlie. Newt looked again at the soft dirt under the recliner.

“Holy shit!” said Charlie. He had unrolled the magazines and had them laid out front of him. There were three of them and they were porno magazines. Each cover had a different naked woman on a different kind of motorcycle. “Sweet find!” he said. His eyes were zipping back and forth in his head and his mouth wouldn’t shut.

Newt took one of the magazines and looked through it. There were lots of motorcycles and American flags and topless women. Charlie was doing the same, flipping through the other two magazines at once.

“Aw,” said Charlie, disappointed. “No beaver!”

Newt heard something in the leaves and looked up to see four older boys coming fast down the trail on their bikes. Charlie looked too and quickly rolled up his magazines and stuffed them up under his shirt. The older boys slowed when they saw Newt and Charlie. Newt knew them; they lived on his street.

“What are you little faggots doing?” said Levi.

“Nothing,” said Charlie.

“Haha,” said Skeeter. “He admitted he was a faggot!”

“No I didn’t,” said Charlie, standing. The porno mags fell out of his shirt and tumbled in the leaves.

“Titties!” said Skeeter, who jumped off his bike. He pushed Charlie away from the magazines and swooped them up. The other boys gathered around Skeeter and they looked through the magazines, laughing and pointing.

“Where did you get this gross old porn?” said Levi.

Newt held up his magazine, which Levi grabbed. “Under that chair,” said Newt.

Skeeter and Tommy D went running over to the recliner. They hooted and laughed and pushed the chair over. Levi coolly looked through one of the magazines and handed it over to D.J. Levi had long sandy colored hair, which he brushed out of his eyes as he turned to stare at Newt and Charlie. He was one of the fastest kids in school but told Mr. Kimmer, the track coach, that he’d rather smoke pot than run relays. He was a freshman now and Newt had heard that he’d had sex with a senior cheerleader in the bathroom his first week at the high school. His crew smashed jack-o-lanterns and knocked over mailboxes on Halloween, and Newt’s mom and told him to stay away from them. Charlie sat down in the dirt and put his head against his knees; Newt was pretty sure he was crying.

“Gross!” said Skeeter. Newt turned. Skeeter and Tommy D were digging around where the recliner had been.

“I know something,” said Newt, turning back to Levi.

“Yeah?” said Levi.

“It’s a dead dog!” said Skeeter, laughing.

Newt didn’t turn around. He couldn’t. It wasn’t fair, the things that happened. He watched Levi. Levi looked up at Skeeter and his nose wrinkled in disgust. “What do you know?” said Levi, looking again at Newt.

“I know where Chad Farmer is hiding,” said Newt.

Levi cracked his knuckles. “Hey! Dipshits!” he said. Skeeter was giggling and Tommy D was yelling but they stopped when Levi shouted.

“He threw that dead puppy at me,” said Tommy D.

“Shut up,” said Levi. “This little shit-stain says he knows where Chad is.”

“Who?” said Tommy D.

“Chad. That sophomore who ran away from home,” said Levi.

“Oh yeah,” said Tommy D, losing interest and looking again through one of the magazines. “I saw that on the news.”

“He’s in The Bottoms,” said Newt. “I can show you where. I found him one day, on accident.”

“Yeah right,” said Skeeter. “Everyone in town is looking for this kid and only you know where he’s at?”

Newt shrugged.

“That fucker owes me,” said Levi. “Show me where he is.” He pushed Newt in the chest, but not too hard.

“Newt,” Charlie whined. He was standing now and his face was dirty and wet.

“Go home Charlie,” said Newt. “It’s over.”

“Alright kid,” said Levi. “You’re with us. And if you’re lying, I’m going to kick your ass.”

Newt looked back over his shoulder as they rode away and Charlie was leaning over something, motionless. He only saw him for a second, but Newt knew that Charlie would sit that way for a long time, staring at that dead puppy and not understanding anything.

The Bottoms were in a larger tract of woods on the other side of the neighborhood where Newt and Levi’s gang lived. They were a series of old mine-shafts where homeless people would camp out during the summer. But it was fall now and most of the vagrants had moved south again. A grey evening was settling over them when they arrived in The Bottoms. They laid their bikes against some trees and went tramping through wilder paths until they reached the mines, which were arrayed in a wide depression surrounded on all sides by tall evergreens. Skeeter and Tommy D went whooping down through The Bottoms, yelling into the mine-shafts to hear their echoing voices.

“So where’s Chad?” said Levi.

“On the other side,” said Newt, pointing across the depression to where it narrowed into a thick clump of trees.

“I found him!” said Skeeter, standing in front of a mine. They all went running over. Just inside the mine around an ashy campfire was a pile of beer cans and empty hot dog wrappers, crawling with ants. Deeper inside was some clothes and a sleeping bag, a Stephen King paperback, a headlamp.

“That’s not Chad’s stuff,” said Newt.

“Fuck you,” said Skeeter. “Who needs this kid? Levi, who needs this kid, right?”

“Shut up Skeeter. This is just some old bum’s stuff.”

“Let’s trash it,” said D.J.

The mine entrance was supported by three wooden beams that formed a square hole leading into the side of the depression. The beams were cracked and bent. The five boys climbed out of the depression so they were standing just above the mine, and they jumped up and down, yelling and whooping, even Newt. The ground was soft and spongey beneath them. A beam cracked and some dust and rocks fell into the mine, but it didn’t collapse. Skeeter went into the mine and lit his lighter next to the sleeping bag, but it was flame resistant and just smoked and stunk. So he broke the headlamp and lit the book on fire instead. They continued on.

Where the depression narrowed, a ravine emerged beneath the brambles and trees. It was shallow at first but as it went along it grew deep and rocky.

“Chad is at the far end of this,” said Newt, leading the way. It was dark in the ravine. Stars were breaking out in the sliver of sky above them. The trees were black claws reaching out for the stars. Newt walked quickly and was the first to see Chad, sitting in front of his little pup tent with a small fire burning in a neatly made fire ring. He was cooking one of the cans of soup that Newt had delivered last week.

Chad looked up as Newt approached. His face was ashy and smudged with dirt underneath a black Giants cap ringed with white sweat stains. “Newt?” said Chad. Surprised, then smiling, then not. Levi and the others appeared out of the deepening gloom. “What the fuck?” said Chad. Newt jumped towards him and swung his fist but he missed. Chad pushed him away and Newt tripped, fell in the dirt. Chad was older than Newt—older than Levi, even—but he was a skinny former Boy Scout with big bug eyes and hunched up shoulders and no one was afraid of him. He picked up a rock and cocked his arm back, aiming at Levi.

“Leave me alone,” he said. His voice was shrill. It sounded like a whistle in the quiet night.

“Fuck you,” said Levi. “You owe me ten bucks!”

“For what?” said Chad, his arm shaking.

“You gypped me on a bag of weed!” Levi was slowly edging forward. His cronies formed a half circle behind him.

Chad’s arm lowered a little. He looked confused. “When did I do that?”

“I don’t know!” said Levi. “But you did!”

“I never did shit,” said Chad, and he threw the rock and turned around and ran. The rock hit Skeeter in the shoulder who yelped and sat down. Levi and the others chased Chad. Newt followed, a little slower than the others. Chad clambered up the side of the ravine and Levi chased him. When Newt reached the top he could see Chad down below, running through a big clearing and the three other boys fanning out to trap him. D.J. was throwing rocks. They were all yelling. Chad was running but he’d been living on cans of soup. He didn’t have a chance. Levi was gaining on him, his hair flying behind his head in a straight streamer. Levi would catch Chad and beat him up for something that he did or didn’t do. It didn’t matter. Newt was panting. He was tired. He walked along the edge of the ravine until it led him back to The Bottoms. He picked up his bike and thought about letting the air out of the tires of the others but decided not to.

He rode home. His mom was still at work. He cooked a can of soup on the stove. All they had was tomato, because his mom had made him take the rest to Chad. He needed help, she’d said. He’d been abused, she’d said. We have to respect his choices, she’d said. She said: tell him to come home with you if he wants and we’ll take care of him. Newt hadn’t told Chad that but he’d given him the soup: the broccoli-cheddar, the chunky clam chowder, the beef and barley. He heated up the tomato soup on the stove and made a grilled cheese sandwich in the microwave. The cheese melted into a flavorless goo and the bread was tough and rubbery. He put it in the bottom of a bowl and poured the soup over it, but only took a few bites. He locked the front door and turned on the porch light.

Full night had fallen and it hung there, at the edge of the porch steps. Deep and black and studded with stars he could not see. His mom would come walking out of that dark and up the steps, but he’d be asleep when she did. Just like every week night. Every night was the same and every day was the same, too. He’d thought today was going to be different, somehow. It had seemed like something was going to happen but nothing ever did.

Author Portrait

Dustin Heron studied Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, where he received both an M.A. and an M.F.A. His fiction has appeared in various magazines, and his nonfiction has received the Mary Tanenbaum Award from the San Francisco Arts Foundation. His first book, Paradise Stories, is available from Small Desk Press. Like Homer Simpson and Gerald Ford, he enjoys beer, football, and nachos. He currently lives in Chico, California with his family.

 

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