"The Lives of Gofers," by William J. Cobb

William J. Cobb

William J. Cobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Antioch Review, and many others. His three novels are The Bird Saviors (Unbridled Books 2012), Goodnight Texas (Unbridled Books 2006), and The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994), and his story collections are The Lousy Adult (Johns Hopkins UP 2013) and The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He's reviewed books for The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, and the Dallas Morning News. He teaches fiction writing at Penn State University, and lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado.

The Lives of Gofers

One way to realize what a total loser you are and what a mess your life has been and probably will be is to sit on your ass waiting for a ride that may or may not be coming in the bus station of a big, mean city. Especially a city where you don't have any family or friends, where no one loves you. Especially without having slept in days, with no food in your belly, no money in your wallet. How to describe this feeling? Geek + Hustler = You. It's not a good feeling. It's enough to get a person turned around.

That was me in the bus station of Denver, Colorado, years ago, staring at the white tile floor scummy and battered and lousy with crushed cigarette butts and candy wrappers and tickets and third-class desperation. Like an old Veterans lung cancer hospital it smelled of ammonia and tobacco and regret for a life badly lived. I was there for hours and didn't know if my friend was coming or not. When I'd called his mother had answered the phone. Like many people I knew she said “Hello” with suspicion. I told her it was me. She knew me and knew my name and who I was but acted as if the words I spoke meant nothing.

“I'm here,” I said.

“I gathered as much.”

I asked if Lee could come get me.

“You could take a taxi.”

They lived forty miles away. “Pardon me?”

“What about a taxi?”

“Well there's a funny thing about taxis. The funny thing is . . . taxis want money. That's the funny thing about taxis.”

To make things stop spinning, I leaned into the booth, closing my eyes. On the projection screen of the lids amoeboid blobs of color flashed like the aerial view of a lightning bug square dance.

“So what you're telling me is you have no money?”

“That's the point,” I said. “That's why I'm here. Lee promised me a job, right? If I work this job they will presumably hand me a paycheck, right? A paycheck equals money, right?”

She said she'd give him the message and he'd probably be there before too long. About then a drunk asked if I could spare some change. I had to wave him off and before I could say “What?” or “Pardon me?” she hung up.


Lee finally arrived to spirit me away, crushing my hand in his fist and booming, “Hey, Cowboy! Long time no see!” My scalp was tingling like crazy from too much caffeine. In Lee's '66 Camaro we zoomed down the back roads toward the Hicksville town where he lived, bouncing over ruts in the road and swerving to dodge raccoons like hayseed outlaws running white lightning. I hadn't seen Lee in five years, but we'd been best friends in junior high. When he wrote and invited me to spend the summer, claiming he could get me a construction job making good money, I told him I'd be there.

On the road home he told me what to expect and what our life there would be like. His little sister, Joan, was now a teenage track star. His little brother, Pint, had gone deaf from a brain virus.

After the eleven hundred mile bus ordeal I was bleary and jumpy, but the whole family was up to eat a big breakfast and I was the new game in town. When Lee introduced me to everyone, his mother smiled thinly and nodded. Joan asked about the trip, so I told her how it was, how the Greyhound from Laredo to Denver was twenty-six hours long, how wherever I sat my boozy fellow passengers offered to share with me what they were drinking, how a drugstore cowboy who hopped on in Amarillo and passed a bottle of Boone's Farm apple wine to me and said, “Take a snort.” How he was headed for Cheyenne where his brother-in-law had a job lined up for him hanging drywall. How when I told him my plans he said, “Well goddamn, we might as well be twins.” And how, in the silence that followed he let rip the loudest burp I'd ever heard in my entire life.

Joan giggled. Pint watched my face intensely.

Lee's mother said, “There's a talent.”

After scarfing down pancakes and bacon Lee led me behind the house for a surprise. His ripped-knee jeans hung so low on his hips it showed the crack of his butt. In the backyard four decidedly scruffy ostriches pranced toward us until their heads and long necks were stretched over the fence, squawking and hissing, blinking their long eyelashes.

He poured their feed from a bucket into a metal trough on the other side of the fence, though they bent their long necks and swooped to catch and gobble the apple chunks before they dropped into the metal bin. The corral smelled of musty manure, and the ostriches themselves reminded me of a cross between oversized, long-legged turkeys and small dinosaurs. Lee considered them a royal pain in the ass, another one of his stepfather's hare-brained, get-rich-quick schemes. “Stay-poor-slow is more like it.”

Joan walked up behind us and told him to shush. “You shouldn't dis the dead, Buddy.” She leaned over the fence on tip-toe and stroked the neck of one of the birds. “The Lord's already got enough to punish you for four or five lifetimes. You don't need to go adding insult to injury.”

“Hush your face,” said Lee, though he was smiling. “And why don't you go put on some clothes?”

Joan was wearing raggedy cut-offs and a track team singlet. “What's wrong with this?”

“What's wrong is that you're prancing around showing up your nipples to Junior here.” He turned to me and winked. “You're going to give him ideas.”

She told him to get his mind out of the gutter, and that I wasn't dirty like him. She said I was a good person. Lee nodded and made a face as if that was the last thing in the world he believed.

I grinned and said, “I ain't that good.”


It had been one year since I'd graduated high school, which I'd hated, and since busting free from that prison cell I'd done absolutely nothing. I spent time with a girl I knew, two years younger, still a junior, who looked gorgeous without her clothes on and was good at worrying about me. We had sex in my car or at the beach, on South Padre Island, twice, sometimes three times a night. Days I killed time working as a fry cook at a local restaurant and getting high.

This couldn't go on. I knew that. I was considering college. Lee thought that was total bullshit, that I'd walk in street smart and walk out an “educated idiot,” his words. He liked working construction and if he stuck with it, in a few years' time he could be supervisor at the housing development where he worked.

In the meantime he was satisfied with being a journeyman carpenter.

“Some people call it grunt work.” He shook his head. “Don't go down that road. Don't get ruined by bad attitude.”

The second day on the job I learned I'd become a gofer. Slang for the lowest level of the construction world totem pole, the menial worker who would do whatever gruntwork necessary, the person who'd be sent wherever needed, who would “go for” this or that. They were nicknamed “go-fers,” though after working there a while I came to think of us as “gophers.” Animals that burrow under the surface of things, that are seldom seen, that live in the dark. Lowly creatures that hide in the burrows of the houses under construction, only popping our heads up now and then to see if the coast is clear.

Lee wasn't the worst about this. It was our job to keep our heads low, and he pretty much ignored the world beyond his life. Of course no one expected us to like it. If you like being the lowest anything there's something wrong with you, right? We were free to resent and we did it with gusto. Mainly we hated people who had it easy, people with family money. But we certainly didn't care for the people who moved into the houses once they were finished, the homeowners.

Seeing all the changes did it to us. We watched the transformation of Whispering Pines sourly. At first there were only fields and trees and meadows divided by paved roads, fire hydrants, and bone-white sidewalks. These had been laid some time before by the developer, the roads full of curves and cul-de-sacs. By the time they got around to building the houses, the sidewalks and fire hydrants were surrounded by thick weeds and sunflowers four feet high. The concrete men then came along and poured the foundations, the framers put up the walls and roof, the roofers covered it, the dry wall men put up sheet rock on the walls and ceiling, then the cabinets and bathrooms and windows and carpets were installed and when it was done, you had a perfectly good, clean new house ready for someone's life.

At that point everything seemed full of promise. Seeing the neighborhoods three or five years old, full of families and kids and dogs, was something of a disappointment. There always seemed to be a car alarm going off somewhere or a baby crying in the front yard full of brightly colored plastic toys. The threat of crime gave the neighborhoods a sleazy sheen. We heard of a woman raped in Willow Stream and a man murdered in his backyard on Blue Star Drive.

At the edge of things, where the new streets and houses abutted the established neighborhoods, teenage kids smashed the new windows with rocks and snuck into houses to party. In a back bedroom I once found beer cans and a used condom, cigarette butts soggy in the toilet. As the company gophers it was our job to police the neighborhoods to keep the kids out and the houses clean. We took pride in vacuuming the new carpets till all the fibers swirled nicely, making sure the walls were kept clean and white, the stainless steel of the kitchen sinks shiny, the welcome mats swept. At this stage we felt as if the houses were ours, that there was something noble and fine about our jobs, and that our role in it was significant.

Every evening we drove home hammered in our lowly fate. The house where we lived, where we ate and slept and watched a little TV, was not new, clean, noble, or fine. The ceilings were low, the windows were small and fogged, and the living room always smelled a bit rank from poisoned mice decaying below the wooden floor. The patchwork roof leaked during the worst thunderstorms and the toilets was always getting clogged up.

Like a ghost with leukemia, Lee's mother floated through the rooms, always home but rarely visible. Her door was closed. Lee, Joan, and Pint seldom knocked on it. She came out when she had a mind to. She had something seriously wrong with her kidneys, but no one ever offered an explanation of what exactly it might be and I never asked. It was that bad. She never left the house and every day wore the same faded crummy house robe.

I'd say it seemed she'd given up on life but that wouldn't be true. No doubt she'd given up on the image of a glorious and rewarding and satisfied life, one that I still fantasized about, but I don't honestly think she'd had such dreams in a long time. She was resolved to something less than that, and perhaps was wise enough to realize that's what many of us have to deal with, if not to be happy with, at least to accept.

And once I moved in she was kind to me. That first day I called she'd been razzing me, her sense of humor, and I didn't get it. To her I was a visitor and you had to act a certain way toward visitors. She insisted that I get preferential treatment. For instance, I was always first in line for the bathwater.

This was a big deal. Their hot water heater was small and weak. Each night there was only enough hot water for one bath, and it took a good hour and a half to heat more, so we drew one bath and shared it, everyone who wanted a bath at the time of the night, taking turns. As the guest, I went first, then Lee, Joan, and lastly, Pint. Lee and I were often filthy from working outside all day, especially if we'd been carrying cinder blocks to the foundations and squelching through the mud, spattering it in our hair and into the pores of our skin. By the time Pint reached the tub the water was reddish brown, soap suds congealed on the surface like toxic waste bubbles.

He didn't seem to care.


As gofers, Lee and I worked twelve hours a day five or six days a week and with two hours of commuting had no time but to eat and sleep. On weekends we hung out with Ladonna, Lee's girlfriend, and her sisters. Ladonna was short and sexy in a farmer's simpleton daughter way. She was a guileless, good-natured person, sweet to a fault. She carried around a stuffed rabbit with one eye missing, even when we went out to eat or went to a bar and played pool. She had just graduated from high school when I arrived and it was still slightly scandalous and rebellious that she was having sex with Lee unmarried. Her parents were smiling Christians always thanking the Lord for this and that. For dinner, for the car not breaking down, for rain when the lawn was looking kind of parched, for a sale at Wal-Mart.

Before I met her, the only thing I knew about Ladonna was that she collected rocks. In his letter Lee advised me to bring a special rock from Texas, that Ladonna had never been outside the state of Colorado but to Ohio once, a long drive with relatives, but that really didn't count because she went with her aunt who got spooked immediately, thought they were going to get lost and sexually assaulted by ghetto kids in Cincinnati, so they turned around and came right back. But she had a collection of rocks from all over the world. Shale from Mexico, two polished river stones from Canada, and a piece of quartz from Peru. (Or at least her Uncle Dan had said it was from Peru, but Lee didn't exactly believe that story.) When we met, after being introduced I told her, “I have something for you.” I rummaged in my duffel bag and pulled out a milky white chunk of quartz, shaped like an egg, and put it in her hand.

Ladonna's face, I'll have to admit, was rather plain and ordinary. She held the rock in both hands, cupped it there, as if it were a baby bird or a rare jewel, and smiled. She told me I shouldn't have, it was too beautiful to give away, and I said don't be silly. She asked where I found it.

“It's from Lake Powell, in Utah.”

“Utah,” she said.

Lee rubbed her head affectionately and said he didn't know why she loved rocks so much, just funny that way. “She'll keep that rock the rest of her life,” he added.

“And why shouldn't I?” She rubbed it against her throat. “It's smooth as silk.”


It was a gentle but persistent form of torture, sleeping in the same room with Joan, a big teenage tomboy of a girl. She was tall as a man, with long straight brown hair, long fine hands and brown eyes that always seemed on the verge of tears, even though she smiled most of the time that I was in the room. Though I was usually exhausted from work, I'd had insomnia all my life and even dead bone tired, lay awake for a time each night before slipping to sleep.

Lee and Pint dozed off immediately, but I could tell by the sound of Joan's breathing she was still awake. She wore an oversize T-shirt to bed and was always as modest as possible when I was around, and out of politeness I left the room when she needed to change or primp, but on certain nights her face was clearly illuminated by the moonlight.

Lying on my side with my face soaked in shadow, I watched her, admired the plastic light on the curve of her cheeks, forehead, neck, and collarbones. When Lee and I came home from work late in the evenings, she offered us iced tea because she knew I liked it. Between sharing the bath water and sleeping in the same room, I started to experience a nagging compulsion to reach out and touch her skin.

One night close I couldn't sleep, couldn't stop the wheeling of my mind, couldn't think of anything to do but lie there in bed and wait for the tiredness to set in, wait for the summer to end, wait to get back on schedule in my life. Lee and Pint were already snoozeville but Joan was out on a babysitting gig. When returned home I was still wide awake and heard her unlock the front door, heard her step through the house. She floated into the room and set her purse on the bed, then disappeared down the hallway. I got out of bed in my boxers, pulled on a hooded sweatshirt, and followed her. I figured she would be in the kitchen snacking. She wasn't.

The bathroom door was closed and the water was running.

I pulled on my work boots and stepped out the back door to smoke a cigarette. The air was warm and wet, the world cloaked in folds and swells of darkness, clouds muffling the moon. The ostrich corral was quiet and still, only the smell of it rich and sweet. The bathroom window cast a bright butterscotch rectangle of slanting light onto the dark yard below, the yellow curtains drawn on the lower half, though in the upper half was visible the rising mist of steam.

When I finished the cigarette, I walked quietly back through the house and paused at the bathroom door. A moment's hesitation stretched as I listened to my heartbeat, to my heart, to the sounds soft and wet of Joan soaping herself in the tub. Then I opened the door and went inside.

She didn't move. But she didn't freeze. She didn't reach to cover her body. She was not frozen. Her chest rose and fell with her breaths. The veins in her neck pulsed visibly. Steam rose off the hot water white as weak milk from her bath oils. Her hair was twisted into itself and held in place with a pencil, feathery at the back of her neck, drooping down in arcs held heavy where wet. Beside the tub was the toilet covered with a fuzzy yellow cover. Above the sink was a large mirror, all fogged with condensation. I walked to it and wiped a circle to look at myself, to keep from looking at her. The glass squeaked as my fingers rubbed against it.

“It's your lucky night,” I said. “You don't have to share the bathwater.”

She took a long moment to answer. “Lucky me.”

From the angle of the mirror, looking into it I could see her in the bathtub. I looked at her that way, her looking back.

“If you want me to leave I'll leave. I can't sleep. I don't mean anything.”

She lifted a yellow bar of soap to her throat and touched it hesitantly.

“Do you want me to leave?”

“Why can't you sleep?”

“I don't know. I just can't.”

“You know.”

Joan shaved her underarms as I stood there watching her in the mirror. She did it slowly and carefully, only the sound of dripping water off her hands and the swishing of the razor in the tub water breaking the silence. When she was finished she stood up, the soapy water sheeting off her body. I told her I guess I should be going.

“I never said for you to go.”

“You want me to stay?”

“I think you should hand me a towel.”

I turned around and she was staring at me, a twisted shadow of the look she used to give me all the time when Lee and I were friends in junior high and she was in grade school. I took a towel off the back of the door and turned around.

“Hurry up,” she said. “I'm getting cold.”

I stepped across the room and held the towel open. She wrapped her body in it and thanked me. I didn't know what to say or do. She kept looking at me and finally she said, “You know I can run faster than Lee. I'm the state champion in the 440.” She pushed me in the chest with one index finger. “And I can damn straight run faster than you.”


About a month into the summer Lee and I got home early enough from work for a little R&R, so he took me to an abandoned drive-in theater near Bald Eagle Forest. The mosquitoes were bad and the beer tasted sour, but I was tired from a day of carrying cinder blocks and glad to relax somewhere outside, glad to be off before dark. The asphalt was cracked and gray, weeds shooting up knee high over most of the rows of humps, the speaker posts like columns of short telephone poles, some snapped off short where kids had driven through in old cars, bashed-up bombers smashing up the place for the hell of it.

The screen looked like the side of a dilapidated barn, a row of horizontal beams with only a few panels left, crisscrossed by vertical posts made of rotten wood. In front of it was a dead playground made up of a rusted slide, swings, and merry-go-round. Lee explained this was where he went parking with Ladonna.

“Isn't it kind of creepy here at night?” I asked.

He shrugged. “That's what most people think. But that's why I like it. I like abandoned things most people won't go near. I like the stuff other people don't like. You see, that's the point. That way I can have them all to myself.”

“What does Ladonna think?”

“She doesn't like doing it in the car, you know, but she puts up with it. Nowhere else to go,” he added. “But she wants a house and everything.” He told me I had something to congratulate him about.

He was getting married. At the end of the summer, in a couple of months. He wanted me to be the best man.

“Jesus wept,” I said.

He smiled and nodded. “Don't that beat all.”

“Well . . . congratulations, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Aren't you kind of young?”

He shrugged. “Old enough to be a daddy.”

It had happened a few weeks before I arrived—in fact, the night I'd made the final plans for the visit. He didn't have condoms and at the last moment forgot to pull out, so now he was going to be a papa. And there wouldn't be no abortion talk around him. Neither he nor Ladonna were going to kill no baby. They were going to do the right thing.

Right. The right thing. Which in this case would be to raise little Betty or Bob to be a working stiff like momma and daddy.

I told him she was a good woman. If he was prepared to get hitched and have a litter of rugrats and everything—that was a lot to swallow, a shitload of responsibility—then I was sure he'd make a good husband and father.

“I bet you two are going to be happy.” I didn't believe it. What I really believed was you might as well throw yourself in prison, lock the door, and throw away the key. What I really believed was he was inviting Slow Doom into his home.


Some days later Lee and I got home after eleven and he just dropped me off, then drove over to see Ladonna at her parents'. The house was quiet as I crept in and tried not to bang into anything and wake everyone. While I changed clothes in the bathroom and took a cold sponge bath, Joan got out of bed to fix me something to eat. She wore her oversized T-shirt slipping down to reveal one shoulder. Her long hair was twisted into a knot and hanging down on the same side, and her eyes were sleepy liquid chocolate.

“How's the gophering?” she asked.

I stuck my front teeth over my bottom lips and made a high-pitched sucking sound, imitation of gopher. It made her laugh.

We were quiet for a moment as I ate the fried chicken and potato salad she'd warmed up for me. I thanked her and said it was delicious. She cut a piece of chocolate cream pie and doodled an animal face on it. “What's that supposed to be?” I asked.

“Can't you guess?”

I scooted it closer to take a good look. “I'm not finished with it yet.”


She smiled and nodded, going back to work on the white meringue. “The summer's about halfway over,” she said. “Only a few weeks left till Lee and Ladonna's wedding.”

“That's too fast,” I said. “Soon you'll be in your last year of high school, right?”

She asked what I thought of that.

“Of what? You in high school? I'm all for it.” I grinned. “A mind's a terrible thing to waste.”

“No, dummy.” She put a gob of chocolate pie filling on her spoon and held it with her finger and thumb as if to catapult it at my face. I raised my hands and begged her please don't shoot. I come in peace.

She said, “No, stupid. I mean Lee's wedding.”

“I don't know,” I said. “They're kind of young, but then again, Ladonna is a good woman.”

Joan nodded noncommittally.

“I suppose the families are happy.”

Joan put a spoonful of filling in her mouth. When the tip of the spoon was licked clean, she used it to carve a smile on the meringue gopher's face. She said I really didn't know anything. It was rather awkward, actually, for the families and all. Everyone knew Ladonna was pregnant. She gave me a long look, then said, “Of course they don't have to get married. I mean, she could get an abortion.” She twirled the spoon on the table for a few spins, until it stopped to point at me. “I did.”

It must have been the look on my face.

“Does that shock you?”

“A little.”

She shrugged. “It was okay. Except right in the middle of everything he stopped and said, 'Nice tan lines.' Ugh.”

“What a creep.”

She wanted to know if I was ever going to marry. I told her I didn't know.

“You don't know anything, do you?”

I smiled and shrugged. She told me she knew. “It's as clear as the nose on my face,” she said. I was going to get married and have kids and be a good father and a good husband.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because that's the kind of man you are.”

“What kind?”

“A good one.” She almost whispered this, talking softly so as not to wake anyone, and I wanted to reach out and touch her, but I didn't. Her face was smiling shyly. It looked full of hope and not just a little fear in the amber glow of the kitchen lamp. When I'd finished the pie I told her it was delicious and it was. She turned out the light and we walked carefully back to the bedroom through the murky hallway and living room. In the darkness I took her hand and let her lead the way. It was warm and damp. She said she was sorry. For what? I asked.

“My hands are always wet when you're around,” she whispered. “I don't know what it is.”


The wedding of Lee and Ladonna took place on a hillside in Bald Eagle Forest, surrounded by pine and spruce, at a scenic arboretum overlooking Whisper Lake. Lee looked a bit ill at ease in his baby blue tuxedo, with his long blonde hair combed neatly and slicked back.

In a long white gown with puffy shoulders and matching veil, Ladonna was as pretty as she would ever be.

After the reception Joan rode home with me. When we pulled into the driveway all the windows in the house were dark. I turned off the engine and set the emergency brake, and in the sudden silence looked over at her and whispered. “Looks like they're all beddy-bye.”

“Good.” She giggled and put her head on my shoulder. “Can we just stay out here? I don't want to go inside. I don't want to move.”

I said we could do whatever we wanted to do.

She squirmed her head against my chest. “Can we?”

“No one's stopping us.” I kissed the top of her head and in a blind, blurry moment we were making out like teenagers on a date at the drive-in. Our champagne tongues were hot and urgent and dreamy, as if they had been waiting a long time for this moment, and when I pulled the cups of her French bra down and kissed her stiff nipples, she gasped and tugged my hair so hard it hurt. She whispered that she'd wanted to kiss me all summer and thought it would never happen, never in a million years, never never happen, whispering this over and over again as we kissed, as she bit my neck and earlobes and pushed her forehead against my chest, a head butt both slow and affectionate.

After a while we got out of the car. “Look at the moon,” I whispered, standing behind her and kissing her neck.

“What? What did you say?” She turned around and looked me in the face as if she were afraid she'd missed something important.

“The moon. Look.”

We stood at the edge of shadow and moonlight. The shiny gray sheen of the light coated the hood of my truck and the cluttered, clumpy yard behind us, where rabbits fed on weeds growing up through discarded flat tires and crumpled fenders, a portable electric sign with its jumble of plastic alphabet letters spelling JESUS IS LORD, and the bumper of an old Chrysler Le Baron Lee kept for god knows what reason.

In front of us, toward the house, everything was darkness and mystery. There the spruce trees on the hill above blocked the spray of moonlight. The line of darkness and light cut across Joan's chest, and with the sweetness of her perfume in my nose and the trilling and buzzing of the bugs in my ears and the smoothness of her skin under her dress against my fingers, I felt as if I were floating in a pool of bright golden honey.

“The man in the moon is watching us,” I said.

Joan didn't like that. She wanted to go inside. Suddenly she didn't like seeing the moon like that. She didn't trust it. “It scares me when it's so bright like this.” She wanted to get in bed and hide from it.

I said Okay.

Out of that brightness we could barely see a thing. We crept forward slowly, Joan in front, me behind, my hands on her hips. After a moment our eyes adjusted but it felt as if I were keeping them absurdly wide open. At the front door she leaned against me and slowly took off her shoes. The left strap of her bridesmaid's dress had slipped off her shoulder and her bangs were in her face. Her collarbones stood out eerily in this dimmest light. Though it almost seemed as if we were floating in this murk, the slight tang of foot odor, once my shoes were off, both embarrassed me and kept me grounded.

With Lee on his first night as a married man, the groom in busy in some heartbreak hotel, the room we shared seemed deserted. Pint had been sent home long before and was a bundle of blankets in the top half of the bunk bed. Besides, he couldn't hear. Joan said we shouldn't and I said we didn't have to, we'll just lie here and kiss and feel each other's heartbeats, and before long we were naked and hot beneath the covers and I was inside her and she was crying because she said she was so happy. The next morning I left to return to college and she waved goodbye.


Was it wrong? Was it bad? You tell me.

I never saw Joan again, but years later I saw Lee and Ladonna in Texas. They moved to Abilene after the recession killed the housing market in the Denver suburbs. “We lost everything,” he told me. The house and car were repossessed and they had to move to Florida for a while, working on a housing project near Orlando. By then I was finished with college, working at an insurance company as a claims adjustor. I'd become the educated idiot he'd warned me about.

But by then he no longer saw that way. He was envious. He said, “You got it made.”

We sat on his sister's front porch, watching his children shoot each other with toy guns. I didn't know what to say. I couldn't help feeling as if something I'd done had made his life a lesser thing. It's ten years later and we've totally drifted apart, moving from one place to the next. I have no idea where he is. And what happened to Joan? I was no different than them. But I've become something different. When I remember, when I think of this, somewhere inside I can't help but squirm.