A Novel

Chapter 22: All the Beautiful Battle Stars Above Us

Camden got fired from his job. Got a kick in the ass. His crew leader, Tony Verucchi, lays into him over some trivial mistake, and Camden, gripped by an unforgiving, two-day hangover—and a teenage grudge against the world—says to his crew leader, "Why don't you go suck a cock."

So the construction company owner fired him. Him = Camden, not Tony Verucchi. The construction company owner said, "The only reason I ever hired you was because of your granddad. And you wanna know the reason how come I fired you? Because he said it was okay. And you wanna know how come Tony didn't fire you himself? Because he knew I would have to get your granddad's permission. You like being known that way? And I don't mean nothing against your granddad neither, and he knows that. Your granddad and me go way back, from before you was even born. You wanna know what he said when I asked him? He says, 'Brian, it's not you, it's Camden'."

Goddamned granddad, "Durney McKusker", practically ran the town, and half the county too, but it never seemed to do Camden any good. Other people, sure, but never him, unless you considered a shit job at the Tiskilwa Construction Company a big favor. Ora Thomas and that bruiser, Alabama Simmons—they worked for his grandfather, cruising around the county, roughing people up, giving orders, taking money, reading knockoff meters. Camden could do any of those jobs, as well as they could, probably better. Instead, after he graduated from high school, his grandfather helped him get a job with a goddamned construction company.

And after the goddamned construction company fired him, the only thing Camden got was a job pumping gasoline at one of his grandfather's goddamned service stations.

So they can all go suck a cock. His grandfather and his grandfather's goddamned rackets. Who did his grandfather think he was fooling? He wasn't nothing but a common thug.

Camden decided that he was going to play it straight. Once he paid off his debt to Todd—the one person who had ever been kind enough to do him a favor—he was going to ditch this job at the service station, maybe go to college, go somewhere. Play it straight. Get a good job, like Harry Thomasson had gone and done.

Harry played straight, and his life was exciting too. Piloting river cruises, getting high, having fun. Camden could do that, something like that. Or maybe go to college. Camden could do anything. Remember who you were: most popular kid in your class, star of the football team, star of the basketball team, homecoming king and prom king and party king of Tiskilwa High School. Who you were is who you are. You just got to get it back. You can do anything. You just got off course there for a while, but you can get it back, get it all back.

Camden was glad he had met Harry Thomasson. Harry had changed something for Camden, though Camden hadn't realized it before. Yeah, Harry had changed something, something in Camden's mind, and changed it quickly too, the way a thunderstorm washes lawn fertilizer into a pond, producing fluorescent-green algae blooms across the surface. After Camden's night on the Obvion, there had been this rapid blossoming of his mind, an awakening: he suddenly saw everything for exactly what it was, and for what it was worth; and what it was worth was what it was. And what it was was nothing.

Algae blooms: they sucked oxygen from a pond; they killed the fish. But Camden guessed, you never saw that part. And so what if they did kill the fish? Sometimes some things needed to die. Isn't that what the minister at church was always saying, quoting the Bible, "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit"? So maybe the fish needed to die to make the algae blooms, and maybe some other things needed to die as well.

Like these jobs his grandfather was getting him. Like this job, at one of his grandfather's service stations. It was on Route 29, a few miles south of Bureau Junction.

Thursday, September 3, 1987. Camden was smoking a cigarette outside the service station, wearing somebody else's boiler suit because he didn't yet have one of his own. A Chevy Impala pulled off the highway. It rolled over the hydraulic hose that ran across the concrete, triggering the signal call, "ding ding". It stopped at the full-service pump.

Camden threw his cigarette onto the concrete, and ground it out with the heel of his boot.

As he approached the car, he recognized the driver: Ellen West, the "Blonde Bombshell". He hadn't seen her since his night on the Obvion, but had thought about her a lot. He was embarrassed to be seen working at a gas station.

She seemed to recognize him, but appeared far less happy about it. He even had the feeling that, if she hadn't already turned her engine off, she would have put her car back into drive and returned to the highway. She rolled down her window slowly, almost nervously, and said, "Camden," as if it were a question.

He wondered if he had said or done something to offend her, but he could remember very little about what had happened that night on the boat. He did recall that she had been very forward with him, and he thought that maybe she was embarrassed by her own behavior. Cheerfully, he said, "Hi."

"Hi, Camden. I never saw you here before."

"That's because I never worked here before."

"Oh. How have you been?"

"Pretty good. I had fun with you and Harry last week."

She seemed relieved to hear him say so. "We did too," and then, looking into his eyes, she said, "I did too. It was a pretty wild night."

"I'll say. Where're you headed?"

"Oh, I'm just driving down to Peoria, to the mall."

The conversation stalled, became awkward. He remembered from the night on the boat that she found him attractive, and he could scarcely hide his own interest in her.

He asked, "How's Harry doing?"

"Oh he's good. I only see him about three nights a week: the boat goes out on Fridays and Saturdays, and then usually just one weeknight."

"What does he do the rest of the time?"

"I don't really know. I don't even know where he lives," she said, as if to reinforce the fact that she and Harry were not a couple. Then she asked, "How's your girlfriend?"

"Oh, she's alright." He hesitated, and then said, "Did you want regular or ethyl?"

"Regular please."

"Fill up?"


He started pumping the gas, set the trigger lock clip, and then returned to her window with a sponge-and-squeegee wand. "Actually," he said, "Trish and I broke up."

"Oh! I'm sorry to hear that. I hope you're doing okay?"

"Well I guess I broke up with her."

"Sorry—I should mind my own business."

"It's alright. I don't care."

She asked, as if to change the subject, "Why does your uniform say 'Ned' on it?"

He had forgotten that it did, and looking down at his boiler suit, he replied, "Oh, that. Since I just started working I don't have my own coveralls. I borrowed these." He laughed, "No, my name really is Camden. Just ask Todd if you don't believe me: I sometimes think that guy knows more about me than I do myself."

She became a little reserved again, "Yeah, I guess I know what you mean."

"Well, I better get washing your windshield and all the rest."

"No, don't worry about it."

"I should at least check your oil and your tire pressure if you're driving all the way to Peoria," and he busily went to work on those tasks. Just as he pulled the dipstick, he heard the trigger lock snap and then disengage. He quickly checked the air pressure in all four tires, and returned to her window. Glancing back at the pump meter, he said, "Guess that's it. It'll be fifteen thirty-six."

She handed him a twenty, "You can keep the change."

"Gosh, thanks. That's the biggest tip I got yet." Then he laughed.

"What's so funny?"

"Sorry, I was just thinking about what you said that night on the boat, when I tried to tip you—." He blushed.

"Oh, that. God, you must think I'm so slutty."

"No way. I guess we were all pretty high anyway."

"Yeah, that was a crazy night. I meant what I said though. Well, except in a more ladylike way." They both laughed nervously.

He wondered why in the hell he had rejected her advances that night on the Obvion. But of course he knew why: out of some idiotic sense of loyalty to Trish. And what had that gotten him?

Fuck it, even if he and Trish were together, even if he and Trish were still together now, what difference would it make? Wasn't there enough of him to go around? His body, it was like a fully loaded gun. More than enough to go around, to satisfy everyone who wanted a piece. What difference would it make? His body was only one thing, but it was a powerful thing.

He felt like a furnace: all hard steel on the outside, fire on the inside, fire that he could turn into energy and power. She turned his frustration into heat, into fire. He liked it better. He asked her, "You wouldn't want to go out sometime would you?"

"Sure. I'd love to. Here, let me give you my number." She wrote it down on the back of the receipt he had just handed her. "I live with my mom. You can just leave a message with her if I'm not there."

"Thanks! I will. Gosh, I sure am glad I ran into you today. Guess this job isn't so bad after all."

She laughed. "Well I probably better get going. Call me." She started her engine and drove back onto 29, heading south towards Peoria.

He thought again about his night on the Obvion. He remembered getting high with Harry, and looking at the stars. He looked up at the sky now, but it was daylight, and there was nothing to see but a few wispy clouds. He thought about what was behind that big, pale blue dome: stars and planets and satellites—battle stars even. He had heard all about the battle stars. On the news, on WMBD. Reagan called: battle stars would be up there, orbiting the earth, scoping out trouble, and destroying it with lasers. Beautiful battle stars raining down lasers upon them.