Joyland

New York |

The History of Hanging Out

by Kevin Mandel

edited by Emily Schultz

Once on a bright spring morning in a time much like now but also different there was a young Craigy in a room full of friends. Standing apart, stilled by feelings of affection and terror, he cast about at their mostly pretty, mostly childlike faces. Debbie, Andy, Billy, Stacy, Bobby, Cindy, Russian Stan. Here they were, lounging freely, lounging well, a braided scent above of donuts, marijuana, tobacco, shampoos, soaps, oils, sweat. Soon, taking care, thinking how really kind of beautiful this all is, Craig stepped into their center. “Hey, uh, listen everyone,” he said. “I think I could, well, you know…”

“What?”

Have one.”

He then spoke an idea of which he was quite proud, and also hopeful. Because more than an idea it was also an answer—an answer for one and all. And therefore, while speaking, Craig carried himself as he knew he must: with an air of indifference as to whether anyone might care. An air radiated equally to all. Though truth be told a little more equally to Andy, Billy, and Debbie, whose personalities possessed the most force. And Stacy, too. On this line as well Craig’s indifference had to it a bit more umph. Although with Stacy it was possible his motive was informed by a different kind of need, an extra kind of feeling.

“A history?”

“Sure,” said Craig.

“What does that mean?”

“Hold it,” said Debbie, “do you mean as theme? For an ongoing project? Open ended? But also, you know, big?”

“Yeah, exactly,” said Craig. “Something like that.”

The response? Pretty much the best possible: nada. Many seconds worth. Followed by eyes catching, and then Bobby and Russian Stan lumbering to their feet and dancing a dance they sometimes danced which was slow, graceless, stripped bare of evident enjoyment. While the rest rose too and shuffled about the living room searching each others’ faces for even the faintest sign of doubt. Doing so silently, in line with their protocol, evolved in stealth over the last four years: Keep it in! Not a peep, when someone proposes something truly new. This knotted in a perception that their most celebrated endeavors—DREAMERS INC., a magazine they’d started, or their short film, Art History for the Way Stoned, nominated just recently for a Student Academy Award—had found magic in no small part by giving the initial idea a little time and space before being turned on in discussion.

So they milled, like belligerents at a fender bender. Until, gradually, one by one, each conceded the obvious: that at least for now, as much as they might like to, as much as they probably soon would, they could not tear this one, this idea, to shreds. Which meant they could stand down, and begin lounging anew.

And soon—within minutes really—time had again a feeling they desired, and came to expect while together. Time that was wild but also a little tame. Familiar time, full of promise, and spiked, ever so softly, ever so fleetingly, with pangs of dread. Time felt this way for Debbie, Cindy, Andy, Billy, Stacy, Bobby, Craigy, Russian Stan, until a knock on the door.

“Who is it?”

“You know who.”

“Matthew?”

“Yes.”

“No solicitations please.”

“Come on.”

Andy, then Bobby, got up, opened the door but then didn’t step aside.

“Sorry, we hate to be harsh.”

“But you can’t come in.”

“Why?” asked this Matthew.

“A lot of things,” said Bobby, “too many to name. But general jerkiness is one way to put it.”

“General?” said Matthew. “Uh… really? General?”

“Yeah,” said Bobby.

“We’ve hit a limit,” said Andy.

Matthew stared down at his fingernails, examined them from several angles. While beyond sight the others strained to hear, some, several actually, hoping for escalation. “Okay,” Matthew said, at last looking up.

“Okay?” Bobby confirmed.

“Yeah. You guys heading over to Springfest?”

“Sure,” said Bobby.

“Absolutely,” said Andy.

“When?”

“Who knows.”

“When we get there.”

“Alright,” said Matthew. He started away but then quickly turned back, lifted onto the balls of his feet, craned his neck. “I’ll see you all later!” he shouted.

Soon they got into two cars, one gold one blue, and headed out to the hospital.

In the gold, turning on the ignition, Stacy thought I feel bad about Matthew, and almost said so to Debbie, sitting at her side. The words were right there but Stacy held back, and supped instead on an idea she secretly held about rejection. Rejection, also cruelty. How her real opinion was different than she let on. That they, these things, were somehow just… unavoidable. Especially now, with their time running out. And Matthew, well, he really is a dipshit.

She revved the engine, looked toward Debbie, whom she’d met first week freshman year and loved with a gratitude and delight she’d never before felt toward someone she loved. Stacy felt this, and also that she and Debbie would of course be in each other’s lives forever. Nothing could stop this, she believed. Including the current moment, and the fact that Debbie would not look back to her, did not seem to feel her stare, was likely even ignoring it.

They took Clement to Grand, the two cars moving in concert and at often reckless speeds. Until they neared Division, where traffic first slowed, slowed some more, then came to a halt to let a parade pass by.

Stan popped out first, holding a Frisbee, which he launched into the distance, over the endless line of traffic behind them, and Bobby sprinted after it, head arched up to the sky. While the rest convened at the trunk of the blue car, which contained Fluffernutter and avocado sandwiches, a cooler full of sangria, and the ingredients for many pounds and gallons of the same. So most took a sandwich and all took a cup of sangria and began to stroll about. Strolled the aisles between cars, onto the sidewalk, then back and forth from the marching bands and floats and people they knew and liked or wanted to avoid. Strolling leisurely, eating, drinking. Appearing, had anyone around them cared to wonder, as if their attendance was in no way impromptu, but instead that their exclusive abiding goal for the day was to make it uptown and monkey about this parade.

Only Debbie didn’t partake. Was relieved to find some space away, and lean just a little further into her gloom. Craig, earlier, had just kind of disrupted her. Disrupted her peace, her assumptions, about the future, and filled her head with a rage of sounds. Screams, song lyrics, but mostly conversations, with her parents no less, in which she struggled to sound like the version of herself she most respected. The one not afraid to be free, call herself whatever she wanted in this world, break a heart or two.

The parade took nearly two hours to pass. And after, traffic was slow to move but when it did they loaded into the cars and drove to the hospital. And once arrived, in the parking lot and lobby, their demeanor abruptly changed. It was in the way they lengthened their spines, slowed their pace, put their very souls into every greeting, every exchange, even the silent ones, with the attendants, nurses and orderlies they passed, (all the while taking no effort to conceal their cups and cooler of sangria). This, their conduct, unplanned and undiscussed, was nonetheless a kind of expiation, or guilty response to merely showing up at a place like this. When their lives, especially together, feel so good.

But also because Dave is one of them. Maybe the most, if such a thing were possible. Dave who is somehow so dexterous; excelling at writing, editing, photography; and who for some reason believed they could make a movie. Could and should, despite the limited resources their school might provide for such an undertaking. Dave! Their exaggerated spirit is also for Dave. Particularly because, of late, Dave has suffered a turn of bad luck. Right in their own neighborhood. First by accidentally driving over a runaway skateboard. Then by attempting to apologize to its owner, a sixteen-year-old who, along with another, beat him for over twenty minutes with punches, kicks, dense fragments of the broken skateboard itself, all the while quoting dialogue from their favorite movies.

Getting off the elevator the friends know exactly where Dave will be, the same as since two hours after the attack: in a bed, propped up, left arm, torso, both legs encased in white plaster; his head and neck centered within a titanium scaffold, or halo as it’s called, and there banded, bolted and wired perfectly still.

“Don’t get up,” Billy said, entering first. Dave raised his cheeks and shimmied his right wrist. His mother, Dorothea (an artist herself), rose from her chair to greet the friends, and received each at the room’s threshold with a kiss on the cheek and breathtaking hug.

What happens next is already routine. Blinds up. Music on, loud. Dave’s sippy cup spiked. Dorothea persuaded by Stacy and Craig to let them take her to the diner for a proper meal and decent cup of coffee.

Yet today is also somehow different.

No one pushes up against the bed to hold Dave’s right wrist, gossip, uncap a Dayglo marker and add to the body of artwork on his cast: a triptych of original cartoon strips, psychedelic paisley patch, glam rock lyrics and random riffs from favored poets and authors. Something’s in the air, something perhaps guessable to those among prone to guessing but only confirmed when Andy lowered the music, stepped into Dave’s view, said, “So, hey, wow, Dave, there might be something new for us all to think about.”

The rest of the friends then bunched up around Andy, so they too could be seen.

“Craig came up with it,” said Russian Stan, “but I thought of you immediately. Why? ’Cause it’s your kind of thing, for sure.”

Andy walked bedside, nudged aside the chair Mrs. Pepperbock had occupied, pushed his face flush against the titanium scaffold and whispered to Dave, as Dave’s eyelids flitted out of control.

“Not bad, huh?” said Bobby, after Andy stopped speaking.

“Don’t answer,” said Andy.

“That’s right, just tuck it away,” said Debbie, even while at the same time she was staring avidly, scrutinizing the whole sprawling mass of Dave, from the top of his halo to the tips of his toes, and especially where he could effect movement. They all were doing so, actually. Stealing glances, or studying him outright, from angles outside his field of vision. Until Dave signaled he wanted to communicate, and the friends gathered around, and Dave tapped out letters that Cindy duly recorded one after the other on a spiral notepad:

PLEASE NOTE: I’M NOT A FUCKING TEA LEAF.

Billy, having missed this, would not hear about it until later, as he’d already bolted, headed over to campus and the DREAMERS INC. office.

The next issue wasn’t until fall but still the room was abuzz. The new staff, junior classmen, all of whom Billy had interviewed, huddled about discussing production and/or editorial matters but even more trying out their new positions—Publisher, Advertising Manager, Feature Writer, Photographer—joyriding them really, while also sniffing out who might be next semester’s friend, enemy, ally; or more, better, if there was someone among with whom they might end up having sex, falling in love, some station in between. While Billy sat in his old, now-relinquished chair, wheeled into the precise center of the room, beneath the piñata (Craigy’s idea), fighting an impulse for nostalgia.

It, the nostalgia, was right there—a pill on the back of his tongue. How easy it would be to swallow, he considered. To drug myself on memories; mine, our, accumulated glory, accumulated right here. And also—no small bonus—obliterate the need for decisions. Because how I hate this bullshit. So brutal, brutal pressure, to know what to do, make a decision, a once in a lifetime—

“Hey.”

Billy looked up. It was Henley, the new managing editor.

“Ask you something?” said Henley.

“Course,” said Billy.

“You going to leave?”

“What?”

“I don’t mean that in an assholey way,” said Henley.

“No?”

“Uh uh but just like for informational purposes. Because you’re graduating, yoh?”

“Yoh.”

“So I, we’re, just wondering what your plans are—as in a person could stay, stick around, even though they’re graduating.”

“Yeah, leaving,” said Billy, hazily, as if forgetting something, and also at the very same moment standing up. “Going for sure.”

Springfest a wonder, a vestige of the town’s agrarian origin. Which is to say a geyser of pent up winter energies, played out today on the grounds of a former sanitarium. Here faculty, students, townspeople brush up against one another willy-nilly. And the air that surrounds is overloaded—the smell of grilled meats, shouts, conversation, a sense that the apparent general order is never more than a spilled beer away from some kind of all-out riot.

Craig watched Billy cut and bob through the crowd, find their muddy blanket, approach Russian Stan, and start talking about the idea. His idea, the one he’d spoken that morning, and was still proud of, still hoped would be championed.

A band had begun playing, just loud enough to negate Billy and Stan’s words, but still Craig knew with certainty. It was just time. And looking around he saw the others; his other friends were talking about the idea as well. What was being said? Ah, here a question. Craig near-wild to know. Yet except to judge by their various countenances—all to some measure mirthless, strained, dour—Craig couldn’t tell.

Until Cindy came upon them, running from the tree line. “Andy,” she shouted, “everyone, listen. I just got off the phone with my grandfather.”

“What’s up with that cat?” someone said.

“It’s ours if we want it.”

“What is?”

“The farmhouse.”

“Oh, that’s positive,” said Andy. He stepped toward Cindy, put a hand on her shoulder. “When?”

“July. All we have to do is help out with harvest.”

Andy opened his mouth, then seemed to seize. Seconds passed.

“It’s a farm,” said Cindy.

“Right. Of course,” said Andy. “Anything else?”

Cindy nodded. “The stand.”

“Stand?”

“Farm stand.”

“Okay.”

“We can run it.”

By now all had gathered round Andy and Cindy, gathered closely, brushing and bumping, a few even hopping; and then, all at once it, shouting, voice over voice:

“Oh yeah fuck it!”

“Here we go!”

“So we’ll live and work there?”

“A book!”

“I don’t understand—”

Photography.

“Who’s doing what?”

“A film!”

“Documentary too.”

Andy bounded a few feet away, stepped up onto the cooler, raised a hand. “Okay then,” he said, in a fearless, near-booming voice that made others near them turn. “The History of Hanging Out—that’s what it will be. What we’ve been waiting for, Dave of course too—our first professional project. And we’ll take it where it leads, high and low, because of course it will be like a slog. But we’ll get there, somewhere killer, just like we did with our film and magazine. And then we’ll be launched—launched for real!—in a way that’s never been seen before us.”

They were in a crooked circle, all eight, and now by impulse pressed together, making a huddle, and so found their faces oddly close, they saw one another, serious and absurd, and began to smile, all eight smiled, and most laughed real laughter including Craig and Stacy, who before huddling had been standing near one another so now were arm in arm, both pressing and leaning in and rubbing more than necessary.

The Pumpkin Patch is where they went. Then McDuffy’s, the Treehouse, Dugout, Walrus Den, and Hootch Hut. Speaking freely to anyone they encountered—friends, acquaintances, strangers—introducing and elaborating upon what it was they’d decided. And the very act of speaking had a potent effect. Set their decision, as it were, into reality. Made it feel, as the minutes and hours passed, increasingly fixed, beyond dispute, and laughingly obvious now that it was decided.

But also among themselves. Talking, the eight of them, mostly one on one, in all possible configurations. Talking with unyielding eye contact, diamond-hard sincerity, and saying, really, in variation, pretty much the same thing: holy crap we’re actually doing this! Yet now that we are, we must do it all the way, never look back nor have a second’s doubt because yes, true, what we are after, truly after, might not be so easy to name but still we know it to be real and besides somebody has to succeed in this world? Yes? True? So why not us?

Then, when the bars closed, they snuck onto campus, into the office of DREAMERS INC., where they climbed a broken ladder in the supply closet, and came out on the roof.

And here, stars. A dazzling shock, oceans and oceans, up above, in the northern New England sky. They sat in a circle. Talking at first about how much they’d drank, how good it felt to be outside, how mad-beautiful was the night—but then not talking. Sitting instead in silence. Hearing only insects and the occasional passing car.

Craig was among, attempting to savor this reality. And believing he was. This night, and these people, amazing people, with whom he’d somehow become connected, and cherishes so much. And Stacy, too, who sat next to him, and in whose hand his own was now entwined on her lap. Stacy’s lap… Lucky—he never before believed himself to be. Yet here, now, for his first time, he did. Thinking huh, so this is what there is. This is what can be.

As the sky began to brighten first Russian Stan then Bob and Cindy stood from their places and said their goodnights. And at some point Craig had the same resolve. He whispered in Stacy’s ear and they rose and walked over to the ladder. But Craig could not descend. Quite suddenly a thought occurred, a thought Craig felt he was somehow required to speak out loud. So he walked back to where he’d been sitting.

“Wha’d you forget?” said Andy.

“Nothing,” said Craig. “Just, I don’t know, needed to say something.”

“Say what?”

“It’s not going to work.”

“What’s not?”

“The idea. Our thing.”

Debbie, Billy and Andy laughed.

“You’re joking,” said Andy.

“I’m not,” said Craig.

“Then you’re scared,” said Andy.

“We all are,” said Billy.

“We all should be,” said Debbie.

“I’m not so sure I’m scared,” said Craig. “But even if so that’s not why I’m saying this.”

“Okay then, why are you saying this?” said Andy.

Craig thought a moment. “Because it’s true.”

“But it was your idea,” said Billy, grinning.

“I know, and it’s a good one,” said Craig, “I still like it. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. Head to Vermont. Live in a farmhouse. Do our thing. But—”

“But—”

“It’s not going to come to anything.”

“And how do you know this?” said Debbie.

“I’m not sure,” said Craig. “Yet—”

“Yet—”

“Somehow I just do.”