The high school lies like a corpse at the southern edge of town, a hodgepodge of seventies cement constructs that could double as bunkers in case of nuclear holocaust. Isaac watches the school draw nearer as he and Sam head down together in Sam’s rental.

“Isn’t this exciting?” Sam asks without a trace of irony. Already Isaac’s gunning for the whole thing to be over. Boredom in a too small condo drove him to this place and would probably kill him in the long run but he might just manage not dying for today.
Ten cars wait in a line at the entrance to the parking lot. More scurry about within the confines of the yellow parking spaces, playing games of chicken for each numbered space which brings them closer to the fields. The statistics and graphs they send Isaac when they want another parking structure always emphasize ease of access, the laziness of the parker. When Sam’s turn comes he aims left and drives to the end of the lot, where he has the pick of spaces. An outlier, of course.
Outside the car it still tastes like blood in the water. Isaac slams the door shut behind him with just enough force to prove he’s unhappy but walks towards Mars Hill High School all the same. On the other side of the school is the elevated surface of the artificial turf, and then past that nothingness.
“Geez, it still looks the same.” Sam’s hands are thrust into his pockets, sleeves rolled up above his elbow. “Like a time machine, you know?” He’s actually grinning, smirking beneath the mop of hair on his head.
“Yeah, it’s a real miracle.”
“I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Quinn walked out the doors and started shouting at us. ‘Get to class!’” Sam hollers an approximation of their old principal’s nasal voice. “‘Turn down the music!’ ‘Stop smoking!’” And then he chuckles.
“Fast times at Mars Hill High, I get it.” Long strides take Isaac to the side gate that leads to the field. He keeps himself from fingering the ring hanging from his neck.
One hand pushes the gate open and then he’s on the AstroTurf. In the eighties they used real grass and soil, at cost, but now there’s a strange spring with every push of his heels into the ground. Isaac starred on the basketball team but had also started on the football squad, a tight end. During the off-season anybody could come and play a game with friends. Now there is a fence rounding the entire grounds and towering arc-lights. The aluminum stands on either side of the field almost blend into the clouds waiting on the horizon like the batter on deck.
A slight breeze gallops in from that southern wasteland and Isaac lifts his hands. The wind is a current coursing over his bare hands and arms, teasing his hairline. Amongst his blessings at the age of forty he could count a full head of hair. There is constant threat of rain on the wind, a promise of violent eruptions designed to wipe this sorry town off the map. And it never comes. Always tomorrow, always another day.
Sam’s hand clamps down on Isaac’s shoulder with a casual intimacy which Isaac cannot understand. “Takes you back, eh?” People their own age sit on the bleachers, talking animatedly. “Can’t help but wonder where twenty years have gone.”
“Poof,” is Isaac’s answer, hand opening and tossing the time to the wind like a magician’s trick. “I’m going to get some food.”
“Uh yeah, could you grab me some nachos?” Even though he didn’t offer, Isaac dutifully nods and heads towards the building. Then Sam snaps his fingers and Isaac can’t stop himself from turning back part of the way. “Actually, how about a pretzel? No, make it some popcorn.”
Isaac replies, “How about I just buy you one of everything and let you sort it out.” Sam is already strolling over to the bleachers and waves at Isaac with a careless hand over his shoulder. Isaac waits for a real answer, but none comes. He marches to the school. The first door he grabs, gun metal gray, refuses to open. It takes a few shakes before he tries the other door and finally gets inside, glancing around to see if anyone caught his mistake. But no one is in the hallway, just bleached lights coming in through the window and reflecting off the mock-marble of the linoleum.
Now away from people, there is no longer a compulsion to move. Isaac can enjoy the quiet by himself. It feels like he is a tidal wave. He breaths out and isn’t compelled to breath back in.
But as he begins to wander down the hall, nothing changes. It should be like the movies. Every locker, every classroom dredging up another golden bit of nostalgia for the time of his youth. Isaac had been king of the court, once upon a time. And for all that, he’s been forgotten by this place. The memories he’d deposited here were emptied out during his long absence. Isaac walks faster, enough to sweat at the edge of his hair, between his shoulder blades, down the center of his chest. But the classrooms remain the sets of a movie he’s never seen.
Around the corner he finds people without realizing they were missing. Six or seven adults stand in line at a plastic table covered by a white cloth someone dug up in an attic. Behind the table stand two kids, and a drooping banner which reads, “Welcome Back Gargoyles!
The line shrugs forward one spot, and Isaac steps on to the end of it. The woman at the head is rough, like hewn wood. She might have been Isaac’s age or his mother’s. She accepts the nametag and goes on her way with a slight nod, her shoulders hunched. Isaac looks to the others in line but they are all the same way – drooping eyes, sagging elbows. Who knows what graduating year they were.
Isaac gives his name and waits a second. He hopes for a sign of recognition at a name engraved on MVP award lists across the building. The kid scribbles Isaac on to a sticker sheet and hands it over. “Actually, I need one for my brother too,” Isaac says.

The idea of a divorce had been fermenting for three years, as far as Isaac could figure. It took that long to go from the first, “I hate you,” to the signing of papers and walking away. He’d surprised them both by being the first to suggest the final solution, although neither hesitated too much in agreeing.
Life before and after the divorce was so similar that Isaac didn’t actually feel any different. He still saw Mei regularly in the process of sorting out what belonged to whom. He continued on in the same job designing flow patterns for concrete parking garages. He fed the fish. It felt more like they’d finally simplified their lives, gotten rid of all the useless, sentimental junk that had built up over the years.
The first day that Isaac understood he was divorced came when he lost his wedding band. It had been lying on the bedside table of his small but neat condo, next to where he left his watch and wallet at night as though perhaps the next morning he would put the ring back on and everything would be the same. But on a Saturday morning there was only wallet and watch, no ring.
Isaac spent the next seven hours searching the condo, scouring its three rooms again and again. Between searches under the couch, Isaac would weep. These moments would leave him shaking and parched, dried out like an ancient manuscript. And an hour later he would manage to dredge up water from somewhere else.
By the time Isaac found the ring he was a ruined mess, eyes puffy and voice gone. The ring was in a pocket of the trousers he’d worn the day before, casually placed there after being spotted on the rug and then forgotten about. Isaac immediately curled up on the bed and passed out, the ring still clutched in his hand.

The indoor gym and basketball court plays host to what looks like a carnival and people fill the spaces between booths. Isaac walks alone, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders scrunched in. He wishes he were invisible from the front and could slide by in the tiny spaces between people. The high windows along one wall supply gray light to the room. Even the primary colors of the booths are reduced under this glare.
Faded pennants hang from the ceiling. There aren’t many to begin with, and all are old enough that the dark blues have aged into the color of shallow water. Isaac’s team never made it far enough in a state championship to warrant a pennant of their own.
Isaac steps into line at the food stand. It makes sense his return to Mars Hill High School would be heralded by unending lines. This was the sort of drudgery that inspired him to keep moving, Mars Hill to UT at El Paso and finally to Phoenix with Mei.
And now he’s back, minus a home and a wife.
“How can I help you sir?” the kid asks.
“One popcorn.” To hell with Sam and his indecisiveness.
“Sure, that’ll be one ticket.” Isaac glances back, but only one woman is behind him in line.
“Look, I don’t have any tickets, can I just give you a buck?”
“Sorry sir, county policy. We’re not allowed to handle money. Only the parents at the exchange booth.”
“All I want is a bag of popcorn.”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
“Here,” says the woman behind him. Her hand reaches around Isaac, brushing his arm. One blue ticket is held between her fingers. “Give the man a bag of popcorn.”
The little asshole takes the ticket with extreme distaste. Isaac turns and smiles at his savior. “Thank you-” he stops, eyes tightening in slow recognition.
“I was wondering when you’d realize it was me you dick!” Chelsea emphasizes the wrong word too loudly for a family event but wraps her arms around Isaac and pulls him in for a hug. She then set him out at arms’ length. She’s laughing and it’s clear she set him up with the ticket, but Chelsea always was the type. “I mean you turned and looked right at me and didn’t say anything. Just a big asshole.”
“Here’s your popcorn sir.” The kid hands over the bag of butter. Isaac doesn’t even say thanks. Part of him is caught up in Chelsea, an impressive echo of that cheerleader from over twenty years ago. He would have put down money she didn’t have any children. Part of him is sinking like a ship with the thought of Mei, but this is the part he ignores.
It takes Isaac and Chelsea a full twenty minutes to make their way back out to the field, where the Mars Hill Gargoyle football team hosts the Fairloch Eagles. The Gargoyles are getting blown away but the school has wisely turned a blind eye to the many canteens and flasks brought by the returning alumni. Half the crowd doesn’t care about the score and the other half cares too much.
They find Sam standing alongside the bleacher. He accepts his popcorn without commenting on its half-eaten status. They then gather up Chelsea’s husband from the other end of the field. Kyle Humphreys, simply the Hump twenty years ago, since become a magnified form of his football self. He was on the varsity team at the same time as Sam, and the two greet each other warmly. For Isaac he has a lukewarm handshake and regrets over his father’s illness. For Chelsea he has a pat on the ass. They agree to meet later that night for beers at the Firepot. In parting, Isaac suspects Chelsea held his hand a few seconds too long.

“Come on, come on.” Isaac punches Sam on the shoulder and steps to the door of Sam’s rental. The beep and then Isaac is sitting inside the car. Sam takes his time getting behind the wheel. Isaac dug up a blazer from his suitcase and wears it with the practiced ease of the white collar man, though Sam is dressed the same as at the field. The car ride itself is quiet, the radio off.
They drive past the high school on the way to the Firepot. Now, devoid of people and lights, it seems a magnificent ruin, an archeologist’s expedition into Isaac’s past, in search of valuable relics. A fool’s errand. Isaac looks the other way, out his own window at the passing houses. Girls used to live here, all over this town, but now they’re just women.
Chelsea and the Hump wait inside the Firepot. The place is unchanged. Along the bar sit men with ragged faces. They all look like the surface of the moon. Fifteen years ago they were sitting in the same spots. The bartender could’ve been the son of the guy who used to work there, they both had the same granite face. The pictures on the walls held aged pin-ups which wouldn’t embarrass anybody these days, all gone yellow.
A few people wave to the brothers as they head to one of the uneven tables in the back where Chelsea and the Hump sit. Isaac can feel her eyes on him. This is why he kept up the workout routine, it is too easy to forget. She’s wearing a slim black dress, strapless to show her slender shoulders. The Hump is just wearing clothes so he isn’t naked.
The conversation naturally starts with catch-up on everybody else they’d known, moving on to reunions and never seeing anybody. The whole time Isaac somehow avoids the question of what exactly Chelsea expects from him.
They ask after Isaac and Sam’s dad. If he’s handling his slow death well. The only question this town gives a damn about. Chelsea leans across the table, her head coming low enough that her lips brush against the edge of her glass. Under the table one of her long legs rubs up against his. It feels as though her shoe is dangling from her foot, tapping against Isaac with metronome precision. She grins like a woman twenty years younger and with somewhere still to go in life. For that moment she becomes wholly unattractive to Isaac.

“Hey, it’s Isaac.” He swallows. It feels like most of his stomach is beer. “I’m just… I don’t want… Look, I’m in Mars Hill right now. I don’t know, maybe Sheila told you, but my dad… my dad is dying and I can’t stop thinking about you.” He puts a hand to his forehead and leans against the nearby lamppost. Inside the Firepot he can see the table. It isn’t Chelsea but Sam who makes eye contact with him, and Isaac looks away. At this moment he just wants to be standing next to Mei. “I don’t mean that Sheila told you that last part, I just…” He takes a deep breath and the edges of everything gain firmness.
Another breath. “Well, I guess I’m done making a fool of myself for the evening. Hell, you’re probably sitting there listening to this record on your machine. Hope you got a good laugh out of this.” He flips the phone shut and can’t say why he’s done any of this. Drunk dialing is supposed to belong to the younger generation.
Isaac waits a little longer outside, eyes closed. There’s a hope the fresh air will do something to sober him but he feels himself drifting back out to sea. A convertible drives down Main Street, but it’s painted black and the high school kids in it are subdued, sucking on cigarettes like they’ve got a bone to pick with death. It should be painted red, he decides, and they should have beers and be shouting. They should feel like the kings of the world.
As Isaac walks the fifteen feet to their table, he watches Chelsea and comes to the conclusion he is not the first man she’s flirted with right in front of her husband. And the Hump is too stupid to be believable. It’s like God has given up on filling in the details of Isaac’s life and so now populates it with cardboard cut-outs.
Only his brother has any emotional depth, and that’s just the illusion of knowing him for thirty-eight years. Who knows what Sam is really like now. Returning to his family after so many years, Isaac finds they’ve all taken the time away as a chance to become other people, leaving Isaac behind in the dust of his marriage.
He sits down in the chair and these people keep talking and laughing and Isaac only sips at his beer. His stomach is settling like a stone and Chelsea is giving him the eye again. If the Hump is too stupid to realize his wife is probably cheating all around Mars Hill then fuck him. There isn’t any real tie to this town. The nostalgia Isaac’s been looking for never existed. No wonder he got out of this place so fast.
The next time Chelsea’s leg wanders in Isaac’s direction he returns the favor. The eyebrow on the far side from the Hump arches like a loaner from a soap opera actress and Isaac nearly laughs. The only thing he’s experiencing is a giddiness which threatens to give away the whole game. “I’m going to the bathroom,” he announces to nobody in particular and walks away.
Isaac doesn’t have to wait long. Chelsea saunters into the little waiting area outside the bathroom with the slightest suggestion of an eternal drunken stumble. Before he can say anything she’s got her mouth pressed against his and Isaac nearly pushes her back out into the bar. Instead he separates his tongue from hers. “Hey, not here, your husband will catch on.”
“What do you suggest then?” she asks in a school girl whisper. He can picture pulling her into the unisex bathroom, pushing her up against the dirty stalls, kissing her neck, running his hand up the side of her leg. He resists the urge to adjust his pants. “I’ll take care of it,” he says. After a moment of reasserting self-control he marches back out into the bar. He heads straight for the table, where Sam and the Hump are laughing.
“Hey,” Isaac says, not sitting down. The other two men look up at him. “Chelsea stumbled past me on the way out and she looks a little rough. How about I take her home and you two keep enjoying yourselves.” Isaac looks from one face to the other. The Hump nods and sucks at his beer, his face already the harrowed red of the practiced alcoholic. But Sam continues looking his way. “I mean,” Isaac adds, “it doesn’t look like the Hump here is in any condition to get her there.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” The words peal out of the Hump with the slow rumble of an aftershock. He breaches out of his chair and into a standing position. Sam nods like he knew all along what Isaac planned and that it would never work. “I’m in plenty good condition to take care of my wife,” the Hump says.
“I mean…” There is the briefest surge of vertigo. But then the rest of his life comes into focus, forty and divorced and living by himself, and it doesn’t really matter which way it goes. “I mean that you two are having too much fun. I don’t want to break up the old team.” Isaac pats the Hump on the back and shows the grin that ruled these streets twenty years ago. Sam frowns but the Hump resumes his self-indulgence.
Isaac’s departure from the table should have been set to a triumphant score. The sense of victory even eclipses the knowledge that at the end of these efforts is an attractive woman. He makes a quick stop by the bathroom where he presses his lips somewhere in the vicinity of Chelsea’s mouth then takes her by the wrist. He drags her out of the bar without saying a word and he can only believe she likes it when she kisses Isaac again at her car.
“Where do you want to go?” she asks as she opens the door. Isaac snatches the keys from her hand. Still silent he slides past her into the driver’s seat. For a second she glares at him under the harsh streetlights. Her fingers play with the door frame like she’s toying with the idea of shouting rape, but Isaac refuses to acknowledge it. He just turns the engine on. Chelsea closes the door and saunters around the front of the car, letting the headlights illuminate a brief flash of the athletic legs beneath her skirt. Then she’s sitting next to Isaac and they’re shooting down Main Street like the last light of a dying sun.
The trip is silent but for the breeze whistling around the windshield and Chelsea’s hand dragging up and down Isaac’s pants leg, fingernails purring on the corduroy. They stop at a red light next to the convertible Isaac had seen earlier, apparently just making laps through the quiet town. Isaac honks the horn twice then shoots through the red light. The teenagers just watch him go. When they come to a stop at Mars Hill High School, Chelsea’s fingers have graduated to his belt buckle. It all leaves Isaac with the impression of immortality, a sensation he hasn’t felt since he nearly killed himself with alcohol poisoning at college. It lets him treat Chelsea roughly, hand sliding around her chin, lips finding hers again in the darkness of the parking lot.
The only illumination for all of the high school is the moon, still low in this early night. The buildings have lost their definition, are sleeping dragons. Isaac exits the car and slides across the waxed hood. He staggers a little at the end, but Chelsea is too busy fixing herself up one more time to notice. She adjusts the hem of her dress as though she were about to enter a dinner party. Then Isaac’s dragging her to the field.
By the time they are actually on the AstroTurf, something is wrong. Chelsea stops prying into his mouth long enough to ask Isaac to undo the zipper to her dress. He does so without intensity. He watches himself do it, in the moonlight, the cold blueness inhabiting the slowly bared skin like it’s filling her with hypothermia. This side of the school is lit by the moon and it seems the same as forever ago. Isaac can’t remember whether he ever did this with any of his girlfriends then, though it feels like something one should remember. His excitement drains out through his feet into the fake grass below. By the time Chelsea turns back around, Isaac is a manikin.
They continue through with the effort for a little longer. Chelsea strips down to her underwear, Isaac still dressed while they stand on a moonlit high school football field. He wants to laugh but fears for his life if he does. It seems he’d be the bigger coward for saying something rather than nothing at all. She does most of the work of stripping him. When her fingers pull down his zipper and begin groping in his pants, the skin of her hand is rough, her fingernails nicking the sensitive skin. She goes down on him and Isaac can only look up at the stars until she finishes, occupying himself by finding constellations from the safe anonymous darkness of this forgotten part of the world.
Out of some sense of gentlemanly calling Isaac fucks her, though who would she complain about his lovemaking to? Maybe she talked about all her affairs with her girlfriends, comparing technique with the Hump himself as baseline. Hopefully he ranks high on the list, though Isaac isn’t so deluded as to place himself at the top. For the first time he considers the very real possibility of getting some kind of disease from this woman. But his body still hurtles towards its mechanical destination, his thoughts locked up in safe deposit boxes within the vault of his skull.
After everything they lie panting on the dewy fake grass, sweat and body heat a strange sensation on the springy turf. Chelsea props herself up on one elbow and looks at Isaac. “Penny for your thoughts,” she says, like she gets all of her cues for pillow talk from television. He stifles the need to answer honestly: he’s come to the conclusion he has never had sex on the football field because he would have remembered this feeling of nakedness, especially on real grass. It’s so much stranger than just standing naked, or lying in bed, or taking a shower. An all expansive naked, coming down from the high of adrenaline and endorphins and feeling each nerve caressed by the blades of grass. But he did have sex with Chelsea’s best friend from the cheer squad in the men’s locker room, he’s now sure, she on her back on the low, antique wooden benches between lockers. It was almost as awkward a position as their times in his father’s car.
Beneath this lurks the knowledge he has just killed Mei again, and not for the last time. Every time he and Mei made love, he’d think of the first time he’d seen her. He was in an art appreciation class his freshman semester and she had sat down a few seats over. She was pretty, but no more so than any of the other infinity of girls who now inhabited Isaac’s reality. To go from Mars Hill, with maybe thirty attractive girls, most of whom he’d dated, to college, which seemed to consider headshots more than grades in handing out acceptances, had been a system shock. Mei was added to an ever-expanding mental list of girls he intended to seduce, if only so he could say he had.
It wasn’t until November he asked her out. That his next target was the attractive, exotic exchange student was no surprise to his friends, all of whom cheered after every story he told them. And without Isaac noticing it, five years passed and he was still seeing Mei and had a job and felt like it was time to grow up. He’d never consciously given up on his list, just absentmindedly set it aside.
“About you,” Isaac answers, meeting Chelsea’s question with a smile. If nothing else he’s learned to lie to a woman. Maybe next time with her will actually be fun. He probably won’t make it out of Mars Hill alive otherwise.

Chelsea drives. They go to her house, a building so middle-America it becomes a part of the background. She goes up to the bedroom, but with a suggestive raise of an eyebrow. Isaac considers going upstairs after her, but some part of him that still wants to believe he is a good person makes him say no. Instead he puts the late news on the television and waits for his brother to haul in the Hump.
One hand scratches at his chest and finds the familiar weight of the wedding ring. After losing it the one time Isaac looped it on a chain and wears it around his neck. It’s still there despite Chelsea’s manhandling. He’s surprised it hasn’t burned his skin as he seduced another man’s wife. Though it isn’t as if he was alone in the effort.
The news switches to infomercials droning with white noise. Isaac can hear Chelsea moving around upstairs, picking up and putting down various pieces of modern living. Trying to remind him a warm body waits upstairs. He can see her, the careful fingers caressing the tv remote like the nerves of a lover before placing it back on the nightstand with an echoing thud. He can also see Mei sitting in their old house, alone, curled up with a book. She plays with her black hair which hangs like a curtain around her at all times. She doesn’t notice any of those small reminders of Isaac still around – a photograph he took, the dent in the table when he dropped a hammer, the painting he’d forced them to buy. Perhaps the answering machine beeps at her, but she ignores it. She is intent on a life that doesn’t include him. Isaac closes his eyes and can see nothing at all.

Fred Pelzer is paid to do whatever in Chicago. His work has previously appeared in Stymie, Flywheel, and the Kanye West anthology #GOODLitSwerveAutumn. His plays have been produced by Throughline Theatre, PittRep, and Redeye Theatre Project. He also writes for the webcomic Bananas for Breakfast. He can usually be found here: @fredpelzer.