How to Start a Gasoline Fire

Gasoline Fire Merit Badge Manual

In the fall, when high school football season begins, the girls who date varsity football players want everyone to know it, so they paint their boyfriends' names on t-shirts using glitter glue. For many years, the girls painted the last name only, but then an old Rick Springfield song became popular at parties and each girl with a boyfriend on the varsity team wanted to be known as that player's girl.

Kim Wallace painted "Cord's Girl" on her t-shirt, because she was dating Aaron Cord.

Aaron Cord:

→ Senior at Elmville High School

→ First string linebacker

→ Also a member of Boy Scout Troop 1068. True to the formula, he was Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. Cardinal virtues all. Just that summer he achieved the Eagle Scout rank. The committee evaluating his Eagle Scout application noted that he was a little weak in reverence—the minister at Aaron's church submitted a letter indicating "less than regular attendance at worship". The general feeling among the committee members, however, was that it would be beneficial for the troop to have someone as popular as Aaron make Eagle Scout. Arguing the case before the troop committee, Aaron's scoutmaster said, "This is a chance to improve our image among the high school kids. Most of our boys don't continue beyond freshman year, and almost no popular kids continue past the seventh or eighth grade." Because Aaron's application was, in all other respects, outstanding, the committee overlooked the minister's objections, and approved his promotion to the rank of Eagle Scout.

Aaron was popular, but Kim was more popular, and she had been popular much longer. Aaron did not become popular until he got his good looks, sometime between sophomore and junior years. Aaron and Kim began dating junior year, just after Elmville's surprise victory over Marquette High School at regionals, where a game-saving interception by Aaron transformed him into a local hero. Since that weekend, Kim had been Cord's girl.

One day, Aaron's best friend, Ryan Landwirth, said to him, "My mom says a lot of people are complaining about the t-shirts our girlfriends are wearing."

Aaron shrugged. "What's the big deal?"

"She says people are saying they're too sexy or something. Those weren't her words. But she says that, back in her day, girls just wore their boyfriends' class rings, and maybe their letterman jackets."

"Oh. Guess I didn't really give it much thought."

"Man, you don't give anything much thought. That's why you're getting a D in chemistry. And you have Mr. Crawford, and he's an easy A."

"So you think I don't think about chemistry? Well, I'll tell you something: I don't. I don't think about chemistry. I don't see what there is to think about. I mean, chemistry would happen whether or not I thought about it. "

"Yeah? And what about English? You better not become ineligible. Coach got your grades and he isn't happy."

"Coach'll get over it. And god, I mean, English? I mean, really, we have to have a class in English? All we do is read stories and talk about them. Don't know why I gotta take a class in that. Now, math, there's a class I can see the reason for. Math wouldn't happen if people didn't think about it. But then, would anyone really care if math happened or not? See what I mean? Now, you should see my merit badges. Those are skills worth thinking about. Those are skills that could save your life. What're you gonna do with English and chemistry and math? You gotta think about the real world. If you were in the wilderness, in the winter, hundreds of miles from anywhere, and you didn't have any matches or lighter or anything, would you be able to start a fire? What good would English do you then?"

"Well I don't plan on going into the wilderness, and even if I did, I don't know where I'd find one that's hundred of miles from any town. Does a cornfield count as a wilderness? Even then..."

"You think that won't ever happen, but then when when you least suspect it—pow! There you are, in the middle of nowhere. No matches, no nothing. You gotta be prepared dude. That's what merit badges teach you: to be prepared."

Landwirth laughed, and said, "Cord, dude, you kill me. All you think about is sports and merit badges."

"That isn't true. I don't even think I think about sports. I mean, sports is something you do. When you're doing it right anyway. You shouldn't have to think too much about sports or else you're doing something wrong."

"Well my mom sure as hell thinks about these shirts. And talks about them. With other moms. Christ, every old woman and her cousin. A lot of people in Elmville don't like the t-shirts. They disapprove."

"So let them. Who cares? Maybe I disapprove of them?"

"You say that, but you know people talk, and sooner or later it's bad for us. It's always bad for us when people talk. That's what my mom says. She says, 'you boys think it's just these girls, but sooner or later it'll be bad for you too'."

Teasingly, Aaron said, "Oh, Burntie says that does she?"

All the guys called Landwirth's mom "Burntie", because her name was "Bernie", and she was a lousy cook. Whenever Landwirth had friends over, she would make french fries, and she always burnt the french fries.

Landwirth said, "I heard her talking on the phone to Schwartz's mom, and she said the t-shirts make the girls look easy."

"Well I guess that's Burntie's opinion."

"It's not just hers. She says somebody else said it wasn't decent for a, quote, so-called Eagle Scout to be going steady with a girl who dresses like that, and she obviously meant you."

So-called Eagle Scout? Who the hell said—? These idiots who knew nothing about Scouting, that its ranks and merits were real, were rigorously tested and validated, that there were few things less hypothetical than Scouting. Nothing hypothetical about, for example, Woodcraft, about learning to distinguish poisonous from edible mushrooms. A "so-called" poisonous mushroom? It either is or is not poisonous. There is nothing "so-called" about poisonous mushrooms, nothing "so-called" about poison and death. This bitch's poisonous words, on the other hand: what were they but hearsay based on hearsay based on ignorance and prejudice? This bitch, this cunt, was herself nothing but a poisonous fungus: One peculiarity which distinguishes fungi from other classes of plants is their inability to manufacture their own food material. They possess no chlorophyll, the green coloring matter which makes it possible for green plants to convert the carbon from the air and hydrogen and oxygen from the water into food, but must feed upon material already prepared by higher plants. They live either as parasites, obtaining their nourishment directly from a living plant, or as saprophytes, growing on decaying vegetable matter. Shriveled up cunting poisonous old fungus of a bitch.

Unable to contain his anger, in fact not even trying, Aaron said, "'So-called Eagle Scout', huh? I'd like to see this old biddy, whoever she is, earn even one of those merit badges."

And now he felt anger at Kim as well, but this time anger colored not by insult, but by frustration, deep down in his bones and in his soul frustration. The frustration of the maple tree with its sap which runs only in early spring and only when there is a succession of bright, sunny days followed by sharp frosts at night. Kim was indeed a succession of bright, sunny days followed by sharp frosts at night. She was beautiful and sexy and she dressed to drive guys crazy, but at night she was frosty cold in her prudishness. Kim, why in the hell did she have to go and dress like that? Even if all the other girls did? When he and she were alone in his pickup truck, she would barely consent to more than the chastest of kisses. Why dress like a slut for all the world to see, and then behave like a prude for the person she professed to love more than anyone in that same world? Intemperate with anger, he said, "And Kim could dress like a hooker and a lot of good it would do me. When it comes to putting out, she might as well be a nun."

Then he reflected again on the rebuke, "a so-called Eagle Scout", and realized that, in his anger, he had spoken about Kim in a way not becoming a Scout. A Scout practises self-control. He keeps a close guard on his temper and never loses his head. He keeps a close guard on his tongue. A Scout never speaks disrespectfully of women. Compounding his regret was the realization that the information he had shared would invite nothing but mockery from his friends, none of whom wished to be known as a virgin. "Hey," he said to Landwirth, "Don't tell anybody I told you that. You swear?"

"It doesn't matter what you and Kim are or aren't doing. What matters is what you look like you're doing. And from the way Kim dresses, apparently, it looks like you're giving it to her good every weekend. Sounds like it's just your bad luck that you get all the blame and none of the fun for actually doing so."

"Hey, look, don't tell anyone I told you that. You promise?"

"Don't worry. I won't. I promise. I always thought Kim was way too concerned about her reputation anyway, so I'm not surprised. No offense."

"And as for the t-shirts, all I have to say is that if it gives these biddies a little old thrill to imagine something that isn't, all on account of some stupid t-shirt, then I guess let them have their cheap old thrill."

For a long time Aaron Cord gave no more thought to the t-shirts that had caused such a sensation, or to the fact that in winter starving rabbits often eat the bark of young fruit trees; but it is not because the bark tastes good.

Friday, September 6, 1985 » Elmville played their first home football game of the season against Hall Township High School. People were saying that Hall might go all the way to state that year, and the two teams had a longstanding rivalry, so the game was a big deal.

In the middle of the second quarter, one of the cheerleaders, tapped Aaron on the arm. Aaron was surprised because, even though the cheerleaders stood on the sidelines with the team, they weren't supposed to interact with the players.

The cheerleader said "I know I'm not supposed to be over here, but I think you should know that some girl is here, at the game, wearing a t-shirt that says 'Cord's Girl' on it. Nobody knows who she is. Kim's really upset."

The cheerleader ran back to the cheerleading squad, and Aaron noticed that the cheerleaders were all staring at him. Then he looked into the student section of the bleachers and saw that everybody in the student section was also staring at him.

He tried to spot Kim, but then he heard the defensive coordinator shout, "Cord, what the hell are you doing? Get over here!"

The girl wearing the t-shirt was probably Rachel Piper. Aaron was surprised she would turn up at the football game, and even more surprised she would do so wearing a "Cord's Girl" t-shirt. On the other hand, he never asked her not to come to a game, and she never said she wouldn't. He just never expected it. She didn't seem like the type who would do that.

Aaron met Rachel over the summer, while working at the service station down on Route 29. He had written about it in his journal: "Worked closing shift tonight. Customer stopped by just before time. Her name's Rachel. She gave me a blowjob. I never had a blowjob before. It felt good. I would like to get another one. Kim won't even touch me. Rachel's from Tiskilwa. She goes to Tiskilwa High School. Still not sure how it all happened."

Then, he opened his scouting handbook, and copied into his journal a paragraph from page eleven: "A scout practices self-control, for he knows that men who master problems in the world must first master themselves. He keeps a close guard on his temper and never makes a silly spectacle of himself by losing his head. He keeps a close guard on his tongue, for he knows that loud speech is often a cloak to ignorance, that swearing is a sign of weakness, and that untruthfulness shatters the confidence of others. He keeps a close guard on his appetite and eats moderately of food which will make him strong; he never uses alcoholic liquors because he does not wish to poison his body; he desires a clear, active brain, so he avoids tobacco."

Then, beneath that, he wrote, "It's hard. Some parts are hard, anyway. But if self control was only one thing, they wouldn't have to list seven things, and I didn't break any of the seven. It doesn't say a scout never lets a girl give him a blowjob."

The blowjob had been like a revelation, like they say in the Bible: it was not susceptible to reason, and it did not come to happen through any reasonable chain of events. One minute he was cleaning her windshield and flirting a little, not expecting anything. Really, not even understanding anything. Not understanding, for example, just how hemmed in he was by invisible rules, rules that weren't in the handbook. The rules in the handbook, he could understand and he could follow those rules. But there were these other rules, invisible rules, not written down, not revealed. So one minute he was cleaning her windshield and flirting a little, but not understanding that he was trapped by invisible rules. And the next minute, all those invisible rules became visible, as rules, each rule like a brick, each brick resting on top of another, forming a wall. The rules became visible but not discernable: he could see that there were rules, but he couldn't discern what exactly they forbade and what exactly they demanded. And it bothered him. And he realized it had been bothering him a long time, only he just never knew. And Rachel, it was as if she just opened a door in this wall, and she took his hand and they both stepped right through that door into a world where there weren't any rules, not even scout rules.

But first it was just simple flirting. After he washed her windshield, she asked, "Where do you live?"

And he answered, "Up in Elmville."

"Oh no wonder I never saw you around."

"Why, where do you live?"

"Tiksilwa. I go to Tiskilwa."

While he checked the air pressure in her tires, she said, calling out her window, "I bet you get a lot of girls chasing after you."

He laughed and he blushed. "What in the heck would make you think that?"

"Oh come on! A guy as cute as you."

Again he tried to laugh it off, "Cute? I don't know if I even want to be cute."

"Okay: handsome, good-looking. Whatever you want to call it. Sexy. A guy as sexy as you."

When she said that last bit, about him being sexy, that was when the door first began to open, and he saw through the opening a little bit—saw that a girl could actually say a word like "sexy" to a guy, and the world wouldn't come to an end.

She said, "So admit it—be honest. You get a lot of girls."

"Nah, I'm not like that."

"Not like what? Never met a boy who wasn't like that."

"Well, I just meant I don't go with a lot of girls." He didn't mention that he was dating Kim, but the omission was not intentional. He sort of thought he was saying the same thing when he said, "I don't go with a lot of girls"—he sort of thought he was saying that he only goes with one girl. In any case, he hadn't been untruthful, not as he reckoned it, not as the handbook reckoned it.

She got out of her car, and he had to admit to himself that she was pretty damned hot.

She said, looking him up and down, "Do you go with any girls?"

"Guess it depends on what you mean by 'go with'."

She stepped closer to him, so that she was right next to his body. She put her hand on his hip, and she said, "I mean do you let any girls touch you here?" Then she lowered her hand to his thigh, "Or here?"

He jumped back a little, instinctively, and then apologized, "Sorry, I just never—"

She backed away, as if to give him space. She said, "Sorry." Then, staring up into the sky, she said, "Gosh, it's late."

"Yeah, gosh, you're right; it sure is."

"It's late, and are you alone here?"

"Oh, yeah, they don't need more than just one person to close up on week nights."

She stepped forward again. She put her hand on his thigh again. "You're alone here. I'm alone here. Seems like we're all alone." She slowly moved her hand along his thigh. "What do you say we go back into the garage, get you out of that boiler suit, and you let me show you something?" She took his hand and put it on her breast. Her breast was large—he actually hadn't even noticed that before. And it felt good in his hand, almost as if breasts were made to be touched. She said, "You got hands, don't you? To feel things? You do have feelings? Come with me into the garage."

He thought about the handbook, about how it says that a scout must learn to obey before he can command. And he thought about about how obedience was so freeing, because you didn't have to think. You only had to do.

She kissed him softly on the lips, and he closed his eyes. His eyes still closed, he said, as if in a dream, "I earned my first merit badge by learning to mend tears in my trousers."

"I think we should get you out of those..."

After that, the door in the wall swung wide open, and she just stepped right through it, and he followed her. Effortlessly. There was no longer anything to think about, to consider. You stepped right through the door into a world where you could just do. And they did plenty, like in sports, where you find the center of gravity, and then everything else just happens. And it ended with a blowjob, with which no pleasure he had ever experienced could compare. He wrote in his journal, "The pressure inside my pants was insane. When she pulled them down, and then when she put her mouth around my cock, I thought I would blast off into outer space."

The next night he again wrote in his diary, "Rachel came back. She asked me if I wanted to go steady with her. Told her I already have a girlfriend. She said what difference does that make. I said I didn't think you could date more than one girl at a time. She asked me who told me that. I had to admit that nobody told me. She said I could have sex with her if we were going steady. So we went back into the garage, where last night she blew me, and we went all the way, in the backseat of one of the cars that was in the garage for repairs. It felt even better than the blowjob. It felt like I was waiting my whole life to do that, and never knew it. But now I guess I'm going steady with two girls."

And that's how he knew Rachel Piper. And now she had come to a football game wearing one of these stupid t-shirts, and everybody thought he must be two-timing Kim Wallace, and Kim was way more popular than he was, which meant that, if it came to taking sides, most people would take hers.

He thought about all those people who had opposed his application for Eagle Scout, who had opposed him on the grounds that he did not adequately demonstrate his duty towards God, and he thought about how they would now feel vindicated. And he thought about how all those people who had supported him would feel let down, and yet he didn't even understand how he had, in any way, violated the Scout's law.

Kim would be waiting for him, at his pickup truck in the parking lot, after the game, and he felt too mixed up to deal with her, so he left the high school by a different door and just walked home. When he got home, his parents were waiting up for him.

His dad said, "What's this your mother tells me about you two-timing Kim?"

News of scandal spreads very quickly in a small town.

Aaron said, "Dad, come on! Jeez—"

His mom interrupted, "Don't talk to your father that way. Are you or aren't you?"

"No! God! Not that it would be anybody's business if I were."

His mom shrieked, "Nobody's business? That's a fine way for an Eagle Scout to speak."

His parents were always throwing that in his face whenever he did anything they didn't like: "That's a fine way for an Eagle Scout to behave". As if they knew the first thing about what it took to become an Eagle Scout. As if they could earn even one of the merit badges he had earned.

He said, "Look, I'm going to bed." He went upstairs to his bedroom and closed the door. He locked the door. He locked the fucking door.

Before going to sleep, he wrote in his journal: "I guess Kim found out about Rachel. We haven't spoken yet so I guess I could still deny it, but that doesn't seem fair to Rachel. And anyway I don't know if it's even wrong what I did. I mean, Kim never wants to make out or anything. She lets me kiss her, and we neck a little. But once I tried touching her breast and she freaked out. So I'm not doing anything with Rachel that I'm also doing with Kim. And I'm not doing anything with Kim that I'm doing with Rachel. I mean, Rachel and I don't go on dates. Kim says she's saving herself for marriage. Okay, fine, but I never said I was saving myself for marriage."

He got in bed but he couldn't sleep. He snuck out his bedroom window and rode his bicycle downtown. Main Street was empty. He put his bicycle into the highest gear and peddled as hard as he could, then he coasted for a while. Nobody on Main Street, but all the street lights on. All lit up, and no one to use the light except for him.

He noticed a man sitting on a bench in front of Ben Franklin. As Aaron rode by, the man held his right hand aloft, as if he were taking an oath, and said "How," like an Indian.

Aaron responded, "How," just like the Indians he had seen on daytime cable t.v.

Aaron wondered what he should say to Kim. Why should he have to say anything? They didn't own each other. They probably wouldn't make homecoming court now, not that Aaron cared. But Kim would care a lot. Her only chance at being homecoming queen, after all. That was a pretty big deal.

He left Main Street and rode to the high school, for his pickup truck.

He wondered, if you had to choose between getting on homecoming court, and getting laid, which would you choose? He threw his bicycle in the bed of his pickup truck and drove home and climbed back into his bedroom through the window.

The next morning he slept late. When he woke, he didn't want to leave his bedroom, but a teenager doesn't have much choice: eventually you have to leave your bedroom, and leaving your bedroom means facing your parents.

Downstairs, his father looked at him with disgust, and said, "Kim called."

Sleepy and annoyed, Aaron acknowledged the message with a nod and began walking towards the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

His father said, "Don't you think you should call her back?"

"Obviously. God! I'm going to have some coffee first."

"Don't you think you owe it to her, to call her back now?"

Aaron actually did not feel that he owed it to her, at least not that he owed it to her to call her back that very second he woke, but obviously what his father really meant was that he owed it to the family and to the town and to decency and religion and the whole fucking world.

He ignored his father and went into the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

While he was drinking his coffee, he heard the telephone ring, and he guessed it was Kim, and he thought, Christ can I just have one damned cup of coffee!

His father appeared in the kitchen doorway, looking more disgusted than before, and said, as though he were being forced to eat filth, "There's a young lady named 'Rachel' on the phone. She's asking to speak with you."

Aaron rolled his eyes, not about Rachel calling, but about his father and the whole goddamned situation.

He picked up his cup of coffee and went to the telephone in the study.

He found his mother holding the telephone, suspiciously, as though Rachel were actually in the house and couldn't be left alone because she might steal something.

He could see that his mother had been weeping—her eyes were puffy and moist and red. She held the telephone defiantly, like a woman guarding her house, not only against a harlot, but also against this boy, her son, who would defile his body by lying down with harlots.

She handed him the phone, and then left the room, closing the door, leaving him alone, to commit his foul deeds.

Aaron put the phone to his ear, and said, "Hello?"

"Aaron, hi. I hope I didn't wake you up."

"No. I just got up."

"I guess I shouldn't have called you. Your dad sounded really unhappy that I called. I know I never called before. I found your number in the phone book."

"No, that's fine. There's no reason you shouldn't be able to call me here."

He thought she would sound pleased to hear him say that, but she didn't. She said, "Well, I think we should meet, to talk."

For the first time he felt annoyed with her. He knew he would have to meet Kim, to talk, and he thought, Christ, not Rachel too. He thought, what the fuck! Am I gonna have to meet with every woman in the county!

Then he felt guilty for thinking that way. It wasn't Rachel's fault he decided to have two girlfriends.

He said, "Yeah, sure."

She replied, somewhat provokingly he thought, "Well don't do it if it's just a favor to me."

"No, no. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. I just got up, that's all. I'm not all awake yet. Yes, let's meet. Do you want to meet at the service station?"

"Well, I was thinking someplace with a little more privacy. Or at least someplace else. Given everything that's happened, that's happening, I'd rather not meet at the service station."

"Oh, sure, no, I understand about the service station. That was a stupid idea anyway. We don't have to meet anywhere private, though. I'm not gonna pretend you aren't my girlfriend."

"You aren't?" Again, he thought she didn't sound as happy as he would have expected.

"No. It's not your fault."

She asked, "Have you told anybody anything yet?"

"No, not yet. Like I said, I just woke up, and last night I just came back home after the game."

"Well I think we should talk before you tell anybody anything. You know, there are so many people's feelings to consider."

He didn't understand what she was getting at. She hadn't said anything about other people's feelings when he first told her he was dating Kim. Maybe she was having second thoughts about the whole thing. Which, he had to admit, might not be a bad idea.

Then she said, "I'd just rather meet someplace private. After what happened last night—the way your friends treated me—if it's all the same to you I'd rather not have to go through that again."

"Sure. I could drive down there to Tiskilwa."

"People down there, down here I mean, are talking too. It's just a big mess. What about—there's a small roadside park off the Wyanet-Walnut Blacktop, between county roads twenty six hundred, and twenty seven hundred. Do you know the place?"

"Not really. But I could find it easily enough. Isn't that kinda far from Tiskilwa, though?"

"Yes, but I'd just like to meet someplace where we can talk without having to worry about busy bodies gawking at us."

"Okay, I guess that makes sense. What time do you want to meet?"

"Would eleven o'clock be too soon?"

"Well, no, I guess. Sure, I could be there by eleven. If I'm a little late, don't leave."

"No, I won't. Thank you Aaron."

"Don't worry about it. I'll see you at eleven."

"Okay, see you then." And they both hung up.

He decided he might as well get the telephone call to Kim over with.

Kim's mother answered the phone in a clipped, angry voice, "Hello?" She couldn't have known it was he who was calling, so she must have wanted everyone who called that morning to know of her outrage. Aaron guessed that every decent person in Elmville was now outraged by him.

He said "Hi, Mrs. Wallace, it's Aaron. Is Kim there?"

She didn't even return his greeting, but simply said, "I'll see if she wants to speak with you."

A minute later Kim picked up another line in the house, and said "Hello?"

Her mother did not hang up the other phone, and Aaron knew that she must be eavesdropping. He said, "Hi Kim. It's me. I'm awfully sorry about last night. I promise I can explain—"

"Why didn't you come to your truck last night? I waited for you."

"Kim, I'm sorry, I—"

"What, were you with her?"

"No! God! Of course not—"

"What do you mean, 'of course not'? What reason do I have to trust you anymore? That girl humiliated me. You humiliated me. Everybody's talking about it. And then you stand me up after the game. Give me one reason why I should trust you."

"Look, can we just meet to talk about this in person? I can explain everything."

"If you want. Come to my house at eleven. I don't want to be—"

"I can't come at eleven."

"Why? Are you gonna be with her her or something?"

He was silent. The truth of the situation stung him. He didn't like to tell a lie, not an outright lie anyway, but he couldn't tell her he was meeting Rachel at eleven.

She said, "Well?"

"Let me see if I can reschedule this other thing. Can I call you back?"

"Yes, fine." She hung up.

He had never asked Rachel for her telephone number. She always just turned up at the service station, the only place they ever met during their brief romance. He opened the phone book and checked the listings under "Piper". None for Tiskilwa. Her number must be unlisted, he thought. He called Kim back. "I can't reschedule this other thing after all."


"I just can't, okay. I have to do something for my Scout troop. I can't get out of it. Can we meet later in the day?" Then, out of sheer exasperation, and on the verge of losing his temper, he exclaimed, "Look, if you won't, then let's just break up right now, over the phone." Immediately he regretted having said it.

He was quite surprised, however, that instead of becoming even angrier, Kim suddenly sounded much sweeter and more accommodating: "No, fine. What time can you meet? What time would you be able to meet then?"

"Would two be okay? I promise I can explain everything." Out of relief that she had changed her tone, he added, "I'm not dating that girl. I swear I'm not. I can explain everything." He was amazed how easily he had slipped into this lie, and how easy it was to move around inside of it. And how easily one lie led to another.

She said, "Yes, two would be fine. You can come here at two?"

"I'll be there at two."

Out in the countryside, the fields were almost ready for harvest, and would soon be harrowed flat; the road was long and open. It felt good to get of town, to be out in the open land, away from everything and everyone. Aaron was now pleased that Rachel had suggested so remote a location for their meeting.

He saw the roadside park from about a mile away. Then he spotted Rachel's burgundy Impala. The park was basically a turn-off with a few trees and a picnic table. As he pulled onto the turn-off, he noticed a guy sitting at the picnic table. If Rachel's car hadn't been there, he would have continued driving.

He cautiously exited his car, and, addressing the man, asked, "Where's Rachel?"

The guy was a little older than Rachel. He said, "Where do you think?"

"Well, she said she was going to meet me here. I don't understand."

The guy sneered. "If it weren't for Rachel, I'd beat the shit out of you right now."

Aaron wondered if the guy would be able to, and then noticed the brass knucks sitting on the picnic table next to him. Aaron said, "I think there's some misunderstanding. Where's Rachel? Who are you?"

"I'm her brother. She came home after meeting with you and obviously I rushed her to the emergency room."

"What? After meeting with me? After meeting with me when?"

"Right now. After this meeting."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"The future, the past. The present. After a girl gets beaten up, she usually requires medical attention—"

"Beaten up! But I didn't do that. What in the hell are you talking about?"

"Drop the act. She told me. After meeting her, here, you punched her. You football players are stronger than you think. She has broken bones; her face looks like a piece of meat. The police have already questioned her, but so far she's refusing to tell them who did it."

"Well it wasn't me."

Menacingly, the guy said, "But it was. She told me."

"Then she was lying." Aaron began to realize how little he actually knew about Rachel.

"Who do you think people will believe?"


"She humiliated you in front of your whole town. She ruined your life. You seduced her, then you told her to stay away from Elmville, and she said she wouldn't."

"None of that is true. I never told her that, and she never said that. I don't know what you're trying to—"

"And then she told you that she's pregnant, which she is, with your baby. You beat up your pregnant girlfriend. And don't think that can't be proved—your paternity. How will you explain that to your girlfriend, your other girlfriend?"

Aaron was silent. He couldn't even think straight. "I don't understand. You said this is all in the future. I'm not gonna do any of that."

The guy shook his head, "You aren't the brightest bulb in the box, are you."

Aaron just stared at him with utter disbelief and wonder.

The guy continued, "It will happen, and you will be blamed for it, and there's not a goddamned thing you can do to stop it. It's already started. Everything's already set in motion. It's too late to stop. But I can make it all go away."

"How? I still don't understand what you—"

"You're gonna help me get two hundred thousand dollars. By Thursday night. Otherwise Rachel files a complaint with the police: assault, rape, verbal abuse, and, eventually, child support...we're talkin' the works, buddy. It does not look good for you."

It took some time for the stone cold meaning of those words to become clear in his mind: the guy's words, one-by-one, were like a sucker-punch/straight-jab/right-cross/left-hook/right-cross/uppercut and out. Reeling...punch drunk...tipping...recover...then realize that you never really recover. Not from this.

Some ideas, some realities, are so easily comprehended when seen in the movies and on the television, when seen in other people's lives. Grown up people's lives at least. Just the day before he thought of himself, with maybe a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, as a grown up. A big shot. He didn't feel like a big shot anymore.

He looked up. Way up high, a jet plane was tracing an arc across the sky. Down here, on land...Soil and water conservation is a man sized job → From the pamphlet for his last merit badge. A man sized job. $200,000 was a man sized amount of money. He had never even thought of that much money before.

Be prepared. My god, he thought, what did I ever learn to prepare me for this?

The guy just stared at him.

Finally, Aaron asked, "Is this some kind of set-up? Did she—? Did you guys set me up?"

The guy smirked, "I guess you could say that."

Incredulous, Aaron said, "You mean Rachel was in on this? Is in on this?"

"If you mean, did she want to entrap you, then no. She pleaded with me not to make her do it. She loves you. But she didn't have any choice. She can tell you about it if she wants to."

"So I can talk to her?"

"After I get my money, she's all yours."

"But I couldn't help you get that kind of money, even if I wanted to."

"Yes you can."

"You must be out of your mind if you think so."

"I'm not out of my mind. For an Eagle Scout you ain't very resourceful. It's a cinch too."

Aaron felt his thoughts spinning, thinning, dissolving, like old paint in turpentine. He could almost smell the fumes that he only imagined. Like gasoline fumes. He used to enjoy the smell of gasoline fumes.

The guy lit a cigarette, and all Aaron could think about was the signs on the gasoline pumps at the service station: "No smoking."

The guy continued, "Pay day at the steel mill, in Hennepin. Banks close before the first shift is over. You know this drill; don't tell me you don't."

"But I don't."

"Yes you do. Most of those workers drive past the service station on their way home. You know and I know that most of them stop by the service station for gas and cigarettes and beer, and you and I both know the reason they all stop at the service station is because your boss will cash their paychecks. Small inconvenience to him in exchange for all that extra business. And you and I both know he has to have a lot of dough on hand to cash all those paychecks. And he doesn't bring all that cash in at once, because people would notice, and he knows that eventually it would mark him for a robbery. So he secretly stockpiles the money. Don't pretend you don't know, or if you didn't, that it doesn't all make sense now you're hearing it. Where do you think he gets that much money to cash out the steel mill's payday? Christ, a lot of it's probably undeclared revenue. Bastard's probably laundering. I'll bet he has at least a quarter million stashed away there someplace."

"But you don't want me to—? You don't seriously think I'd—?"

"Shut up. I don't want you to do anything but find out where the safe is, and what kind of safe it is. Then you let yourself get robbed. We stage a robbery. I can crack the lock on the safe—I just need to know what kind it is. Aside from than that, you don't have to do anything other than keep your mouth closed and let yourself be tied up."

"But I've never even seen the safe. I didn't even know—"

"Then you'll have to find it. That service station isn't so big. Aren't you Boy Scouts supposed to be resourceful or something?"

Aaron suddenly felt ashamed of being a Boy Scout, of being an Eagle Scout. Ashamed because it had prepared him for nothing, not even how to stand up to this crook. Aaron said, "My boss has always been so great to me. And anyway you couldn't get away with it. I can't just go and—. What you're asking is too much."

"I'd say it's a pretty small price to pay, to have all this go away."

"All what go away?"

"Rachel, me, the pregnancy, the scandal."

"Would Rachel deny that we ever did anything?"

The guy nodded, "If that's what you want. She'll do anything for you."

"But what about the baby?"

"It's early. It can be taken care of."

"You don't mean she'd—?"

"Get off your high horse. If I were you, I'd just be hoping the beating I gave her didn't induce a miscarriage. That'd be a whole lot worse for you. All the blame comes down to you."

The most important thing of all is not to get frightened or allow yourself to get excited, for no harm can come to you if you keep your head; once you lose it your real troubles begin.

Aaron said, "I just don't understand. She would let herself get beaten up? You really have that much power over her? Whatever it is, she should just go to the police. I don't know if I even believe you. I'm gonna go to the hospital and see for myself. I want to speak with her. I'm going to the hospital."

"Be my guest. That ought to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you're guilty as hell. She'll have to put a restraining order against you."

"But people know me here. Nobody's going to believe that I'd—"

"People thought they knew you. I'm betting they aren't so sure anymore. And people in Tiskilwa know Rachel. Go ahead and put your reputation up against hers. I dare you to. Rachel will be checking into the E.R. in about fifteen minutes. Does anybody know where you are right now?"

He thought about the lie he had told Kim—that he couldn't meet at 11:00 because of a prior obligation to his Scout Troop. If the police became involved, that lie would be exposed lickity-split. He felt trapped, and he understood that he was trapped in part by his own lies. A scout ought to stand up courageously for the truth. But what was the use of the truth when it would cause more harm than good? And what was the use of the truth when nobody would have believed it anyway? And what was the use of the truth when, even though you had done nothing wrong, everybody would damn you for it?

What was the goddamn use of the goddamned truth?

Hadn't he, as a Boy Scout, been enjoined to practice deception in learning about nature? Become acquainted with nature. It includes the tracking of animals by the marks left by their hoofs, and by stealing out upon these animals, not to do them harm, but for the sake of studying their habits and learning about them. Had he done any worse than that? He had not intended to do any harm.

The guy then said, "Go ahead and go to the police, if that's what you're thinking. She's already prepared to tell them that you beat her because she wouldn't help you plan this very robbery. That you had just been using her all along."

"I can't believe any of it. I can't believe this is real. Rachel, she's just a girl from Tiskilwa. I don't see how she could be involved in something like this. I don't see how you guys can't get caught."

"Rachel wouldn't do anything. She's being forced into it. I'm forcing her into it. You're forcing her into it. You forced her into it. You made an opportunity for me. Go home, think about it. Watch your mailbox: I'll be sending you a polaroid—you'll see what the cops will have seen, her savaged face, and you can decide if you want to take the rap for it, or if you'd rather be a minor hero in a gas station robbery. Your boss is a crook, you know. I bet most of that cash is laundered. He won't even report most of it to the police because they'll want to know where it came from in the first place. How stupid can you be, kid? He ain't gonna tell the police how much money he had stashed away there, if he calls the police in at all. I bet he don't even tell you how much money was stolen. He'll probably let you off easy just to cover things up. This guy, your boss, he's crooked as hell. You want to lose everything just to help him keep his dirty money? Go home and think it over. I'll be in touch with you, don't worry about that. Just remember: if you go to the police, it's you who's in hot water, not Rachel, and not me. She'd never double cross me. Never. Things couldn't hardly look worse for you kid."

The guy threw his cigarette onto the gravel and ground it out with his boot. He got into Rachel's Impala and drove away.

Aaron picked up the cigarette butt and threw it into the rusty trash can near the picnic table. He sat at the picnic table, where the guy had been sitting: elbows on table, holding his head in his hands. The same hands that had done all these wrong things. The same hands that had done what the mind did not know, or sufficiently understand. The same hands that would do more, but would now do what his mind fully understood. He thought about how a Scout would rather die than have his honor stained. An Eagle Scout takes a cold bath very often, rubbing dry with rough towel—. Enough. If he thought anymore he thought he would howl. His goddamned lusting, goddamned thrusting. An Eagle Scout always must stand for clean speech. Stands for clean speech, clean sport, clean habits, and travels with a clean crowd...

No amount of scrubbing with soap and cold water, no amount of rubbing dry with rough towel, can clean me.