Her chiming phone, the ring tone meant to be soothing, shattered their sleep. Alice sat straight up. “Yes-yes, what is it?”
It was Mrs. Johnson, two doors away. Her daughter had not returned from last night’s party at the beach. Did Keith know what beach? Could he go down there? It was almost light.
No, it wasn’t too much to ask. Keith dropped the tailgate, peeled two garbage bags off the roll he kept in the utility box and grabbed a pair of canvass work gloves. He shook them out of the wrapper, snapped them apart and pulled out the staple.
Alice leaned out the window. “I can come along.”
He laid his hand on her arm, shook his head.
“You’d have trouble on the sand. Let me do it.”
“Think she’s still down there?”
Aside from his truck, the lot was empty.
“Not much chance of that,” he said. “Did you call her mother?”
“The line was busy so I left a message. Said you’re going down.”
He nodded, pulled off his jacket and draped it over the truck bed. The sun was above the cedars.
“She’s done this before, hasn’t she, just not come home?”
Alice nodded. “Usually she’s at a friend’s house. Once she fell asleep in her car, right in the driveway.”
Like a cat, Keith thought.
“Why the garbage bags?”
“There’ll be trash.”
She stepped out of the truck, leaned against the cab. “Mrs. Johnson will appreciate this. What you’re doing.”
He nodded, kicked at the gravel in the parking lot. It had been almost a year since they lost Jerry. Drinking, driving too fast. The fireman cleaned the site before they arrived; swept up the metal and glass, hosed down the asphalt.
She pointed toward the lake. “How far is it…to where they had the party?”
“Half a mile.”
The first part of the path to Lake Michigan was downhill, winding around juniper and partially buried, wind-bleached logs. At the bottom was a broad, flat basin, void of vegetation. The path continued up the next dune, ascending in a series of tight switchbacks until it was lost in scrubby poplars near the top.
He slapped his rear pocket where he kept the phone. “I’ll call you.”
Bags in one hand, gloves in the other, Keith started down the path at a steady trot. He held the pace easily, elbows pumping, breaths measured, hopping over an occasional fallen log or scooting around a brush pile. He jogged across the flat area, crested the second dune, then dropped into a wide blowout, absent signs of life except for deer mouse tracks. At the top of the next dune: Lake Michigan. The water was flat calm and a deep cerulean blue; the line between surface and sky was narrow and ruler straight.
The remains of a bonfire were not far from the base of the dune, about fifty yards from the lake. Party remains, cans, bottles, articles of clothing, radiated in all directions. It was as though a dumpster had been overturned and the contents spread.
“Christ Almighty. One hell of a party.”
He went straight to the water’s edge, stood on hard-packed sand and scanned both directions. Nothing. He walked back to the party site, opening a bag and pulling on his gloves as he approached the fire pit. Down on his knees, he teased part of a blackened Bud Lite carton from between two charred logs and shoved it in the bag. The smell of urine wafted up from the ashes.
“Bright guys—dousing the fire with piss.”
He worked his way in ever widening circles, bagging every can, bottle, and party discard. Crumpled candy wrappers next to a cluster of cigarette butts, an almost full box of crackers, two unopened bag of marshmallows.
“What a waste. Too drunk to tote out food?”
He was sixteen years old. Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, drinking beer with high school buddies. Two months later, he and Jenny, his first sweetheart, sipping rum and making love on a blanket behind her Grandfather’s barn. Smoking cigarettes in the basement of an abandoned house when he was eleven years old. Trudging through six inches of snow along Front Street in Traverse City, looking for a place to eat breakfast after an all-night party at Jill’s house, his first year at Junior College.
Jerry went to parties at this very spot. He was here right before he died. Keith gazed toward the parking lot, hidden by the bluffs. Alice was thinking about that night.
Bud Lite, Coors Lite, Miller Lite. Not what you’d call sophisticated beer connoisseurs. A half full bottle of Green Apple Boones Farm Wine, an empty orange juice jug, a Popov vodka bottle. Ingredients for a hangover. The variety of discards increased moving away from the fire. A sock, a tennis shoe, a maroon towel, fancy sunglasses partially buried in sand. He held them in his palm. They were broken, likely stepped on. He tied off the first bag, set it down and opened the other.
Then the pee marks. When guys go, they tend to discharge over a broad area, as though they were watering the tomato patch or hosing down a sidewalk. A girl just leaves a well- sculpted hole in the sand, tight and tidy.
Now the barf area, the farthest out. No shame in peeing at a beer party, even in mixed company, but barfing is another matter. If they could, the sickies got the farthest away. He gritted his teeth as he kicked sand over a yellow-red splotch of tomato sauce, bits of pepperoni and mushrooms. A few steps away was a sand-congealed puddle of hot dog chunks, green relish and onion shreds. Didn’t see any hot dog wrappers; they must have burned. After the third barf, Keith’s stomach roiled. He shuddered, glad to have skipped breakfast. Concentrate on the horizon, he thought, breathe through your mouth.
He thought about Mrs. Johnson, back home, worrying about her daughter. Had to suffer the humiliation of phoning a neighbor at 5:30 in the morning to ask if they knew her daughter’s whereabouts. Reaching out to an acquaintance is bad enough, but getting a call from the police at night while asleep is worse. Still, Mrs. Johnson knew the hurt.
He turned slowly, eyes wandering over the distant dunes, cedar and poplar trees. Was she out there somewhere? Unlikely.
When the nausea cleared, he continued. At the foot of a small rise, surrounded by reed grass, he spotted a sand-crusted condom. Those that weren’t barfing were screwing. He picked it up, grabbing it with a handful of sand. He found three more condoms, plus wrappers. Like the barfs, he avoided looking directly at them. Instead, concentrate on a nearby object like a flat stone or twig.
Hmmm, lady’s panties, couple of them. One pair small, white and spattered with pink flowers, the other black and large. Right next to each other. They could have been lost at different times. Or, better yet, two girls lying right next to each other, doing it at the same time. The fat one would turn her head and say to the skinny one, ‘Isn’t this great?’ And the skinny one would say, ‘Yeah, and it’s so cool being together like this.’
Living life to the fullest, they were.
Keith tramped back and forth through the reed grass, looking for more condoms. The side by side panties intrigued him. Perhaps something interrupted both couples at the same time and the girls left without their drawers. He glanced at the fire pit. Maybe something happened and everyone left at once. That’s why so much crap was strewn about.
He was finished. No more cans, bottles, condoms, or trash. Just pee marks and barf patches and soon they’d disappear. He tied off the second bag, pulled out his phone and called Alice.
“Nuthin’ but trash. I bagged it all.”
“No sign of her?”
“None. What’s the girl’s name? Mrs. Johnson’s daughter?
After a short pause, Alice said, “She probably didn’t know Jerry. He was a lot older.”
She was thinking about Jerry.
“Right. Be back in a few minutes.”
He didn’t tell her about the panties. They could have been anyone’s.
It took him longer to trudge back to the truck. It was mostly uphill, and the bags, filled with trash and sand, were heavy. He rested twice. Back at the parking lot, he tossed them in a dumpster. He threw the gloves in after.
Alice walked toward him, phone in hand. She had waited on a bench overlooking the bluffs.
“I texted her mother.”
He pulled a jug out of the utility box and splashed water on his hands.
“What’d ya tell her?”
“Said you’d been down there and didn’t see anything.”
He dried his hands on a towel.
“I doubt she wandered off by herself and her buddies left without her.”
He didn’t tell her that he’d checked the shoreline and didn’t see a body.
She slipped her arm around his waist. “Was it…tough being down there?”
He shook his head from side to side. “Place was a mess, but not really. Felt like I was doing something.”
They started for the truck.
“Would you like to go down? I cleaned up everything.”
“Not today, but sometime.”
He thought about the panties. Suppose this was a crime scene? The authorities might want those panties. But it’s Sunday, they won’t empty dumpsters until Monday, if then. If Janice doesn’t show, I’ll call them, say I was out here, found panties and bagged ‘em along with trash. We could all come out here, I’d show them the bags.
He stomped his feet, knocking off sand. Or I could just describe the panties to Mrs. Johnson. She’d know if they belonged to her daughter.
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