On Laura’s first day at the Purdue Entomology lab, while counting white larvae floating in glass vials, Mark asked her if she was gay, and she said yes. Based on her first ten minutes of observing him, she’d thought he was a cocky asshole. She liked him immediately.
“Does the fact that I’m gay bother you?” She smiled.
“Ain’t none of my business,” he said, grinning and shaking his head. “You know?”
Actually, she didn’t know, because she was making the whole thing up. And because it made him smile, she let him believe it was true.
Her boyfriend Jared had thought she was gay at first. Yes, she had short hair. Yes, she dressed kind of like a boy. But no, she wasn’t gay. She’d had an encounter with a girlfriend once, but only because she was drunk in a bathroom and the girlfriend grabbed her face and kissed her. The waifish Jared, with piercings and bleached blonde hair, was a little androgynous himself. But as a lead singer for Narcoleptic and a floor manager at Best Buy, she thought it worked.
Mark Schneider was tall, tan, and lean. He wore high tops, and baggy jeans with tight gray T-shirts that said ARMY. He spoke in a soft low voice, unless you asked him to repeat himself, then he spoke very loud, as if he were angry, though he was only playing. When people he knew came into the lab, he stood up and shook their hands, or hunched over like a boxer, bit his upper lip, and punched them softly in the shoulder. He lived on the outskirts of Lafayette, in a prefab house with his sister and her husband and their little boy. “Little kid loves me,” Mark said, frowning. “Calls me Hee-Hee. I drive him around sometimes. He says “Vroom, Hee-hee, Vroom!” “
Laura’s second day on the job, as they counted soybeans, Mark made a confession: He was repenting. Laura asked what he’d done. He said what he’d done didn’t matter. It just came to him one day—a voice saying it was time to makes things right.
“How do you know what’s right?” She wanted to know.
“Bible,” he said.
She shrugged. She wrote 69 on the envelope and poured the beans inside. Mark wanted a change; she could understand that. She had once craved spiritual transformation—and maybe she still did. But she’d given up on church. All the changes she sought now were physical: she wanted to be thinner, she wanted long hair, she wanted to be pleasured. That, and she wanted Molly gone.
Molly was a fat girl with dyed black hair and purple makeup who moved in with Laura and Jared because Molly’s roommate had been shipped to detox and now Molly couldn’t afford her Wabash Landing apartment. The day she arrived, Molly brought a suitcase of black skirts, jewelry, and Marilyn Manson T-shirts, three boxes of video tapes, and a laundry basket full of houseplants. She plopped down on the couch and watched a video a friend of hers had made—an online sex guru named Dominique—depicting how to explore S&M safely and responsibly.
“Does she have to watch those when we’re at home?” Laura asked.
Jared, still in his blue Best Buy polo, eating a banana, raised his eyebrows and said, “Laura, she’s our guest. Let’s please try to make her feel at home.”
During her interview, Barry, the man who would become Laura’s boss, explained that being a Field Research Technician wouldn’t be easy. “Some days,” he said, smiling and staring at the ceiling, as if a picture was unreeling there, “the corn will be over your head. The sun will beat down on you. You’ll be swattin’ at mosquitoes. Sweat’ll be drippin’ into your eyes.”
Barry Fischer was a scientist. Detailed, precise, and methodical, his missions required accuracy and efficiency. He wanted his employees to have all the information they could, which sometimes meant a 30-minute lecture about how properly to clean the floormats of university trucks. A skinny little man with big glasses and a white beard and a baseball cap and a Members Only jacket, he resembled a shell-less turtle, though he was not slow.
“Other days,” he continued, “you’ll be wading through a soybean field. That soybean field will be waist high. It’s like walking through Jell-o. You ever walked through a waist high field of Jell-o?”
“Does this sound like your kind of work?” he asked. He grinned. His big teeth were yellow. Like com.
“Absolutely,” she said, though she’d never worked a day in her life. Nothing, at least, that required dirt or sweat.
Her third day at the lab, the entire team of Purdue University Entomology Field Crops Research Technicians—Mike, Raven, Brent, Trent, Molly and Laura—scissored tiny circles in screens for bug traps. Rick, one of the head entomologists, was going to Belize to gather maggots, and he wanted to make sure they could breathe.
“You’re doing it wrong,” Mark said, wrinkling his nose, grinning, and nodding towards her scissors.
“What are you gonna do? Tell on me?”
“Don’t never tell on anyone, man,” Mark said, squinching his mouth shut.
“Why not?” Brent asked. Brent was a pudgy Master’s student in Entomology who always wore a Cubs hat and T-shirts proclaiming the triumphs of beer. Divorced with two kids, he usually led the monologues that were to be their conversations: My ex got a hold of my credit cards. My ex gained 40 pounds. My ex feeds my kids cheese whiz and R.C. Cola. My ex is a slut. My ex this. My ex that.
“Man, never, ever, ever rat on anyone,” Mark said. “I don’t care what you done.” He told them about what his unit at boot camp did once when one of the geeks ratted on his friends for smoking: they slid padlocks into their pillowcases and each took a turn swinging them against the guy’s head. When they were finished, the guy’s face had caved in. The worst part? He survived.
Laura watched Mark scissor out a perfect hole in the screen. His hands were chapped and rough.
“What?” he asked.
“You have nice hands,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said, batting his eyelashes.
On Laura’s fourth day of work, she and Brent went to the areawide research site to plant beetle traps. They walked mile long fields, carrying shovels and long wires with plastic flags at the end. They tripped over clumps of dirt. They dug holes, inserted the stainless steel traps. Inside the traps they set bottles of antifreeze. The plan was that the beetles would tumble into the traps and be preserved by the green fluid. When the trap was set, they stabbed a wire flag into the ground, so when the corn got high, they could find the traps, and so farmers wouldn’t run over them.
“What do you think of Mark?” Brent asked.
“He’s pretty cool,” she said.
“You know he got kicked out of the military.”
“Nobody knows except Barry.”
“What do you think he did?”
“I think he probably messed somebody up pretty bad.”
Laura blinked. She remembered a story Mark had told the day before: once, Mark and his friend Matt were going into the woods to play paintball, and they came upon a band of Satanists. The Satanists were in black robes around a fire and they were chanting—no kidding—”Hail Satan.” Mark and Matt fired the paintball guns at them. The Satanists dispersed, swatting at their bodies, crying out for mercy. They gave them none.
Laura had believed the story, but when she thought about it now, she wondered. Mark had unbelievable stories, but he didn’t seem like a liar.
Her shovel blade slid into dry, crumbly earth. Mark and another faceless man tumbled through her head. She imagined wrestling him, imagined being taken down. She worked the dirt harder.
Laura told Jared about Mark on a Friday night. They were sitting in the cushy, squeaky chairs of the Eastside movie theater, watching the lame, pre-previews trivia flash across the screen. “Wow,” Jared said. “This Mark guy sounds REALLY cool. Maybe we could get together and he could crush our skulls with a padlock in a pillowcase,” Laura said he was more complicated than that: he had a little nephew; he played basketball; he was repenting. Jared finished off the popcorn and laughed and the lights dimmed and an ad for a movie with Penelope Cruz came on. Penelope wore a dress that fluttered and she pouted towards the Mediterranean. Then, as she often did when sitting in the dark in front of a flickering screen, Laura fell asleep.
At work, Mark always drove the Entomology team to the Ag sites. He drove the van, the truck, and the suburban. He drove whatever it was they rode in—Barry always tossed him the keys. When Mark drove, he cranked up the radio. It was obvious he wanted to be in control, which was fine with Laura—she had faith in him. It was different than riding with Jared, whose slow and careful driving made her flinch. She rode in the front with Mark and they bobbed their heads to gritty power chords as the Indiana fields slid past. They gripped the oh-shit handles when fishtailing on the gravel. “Yeah,” Mark said, his nose squinched up. “Yeah!”
On Laura’s seventh day at work, it rained. “When it rains,” Mark said as he drove the crew out to the Entomology barn, “we work on the coffins.” The coffins were large wooden boxes meant to house Brent’s stainless steel beetle traps. Mark had spray painted one orange then sprayed “Entology” graffiti style on the side.
Mark laughed when Laura picked up a drill. “What?” she asked. “Go ahead,” he said. Laura drilled two perfect holes. Mark pushed out his bottom lip and nodded. “You have a girlfriend?” he asked. Laura smiled and told him that was none of his business. He shrugged.
“Her name’s Molly,” she said.
“What’s she look like?”
“Well, she’s about three times as big as me. She’s very manly. She plays on the rugby team. She listens to Marilyn Manson. She dresses in all black.” She realized she should’ve told him that she was blonde and tall with long legs, big tits.
“Have you told your parents?”
“No,” she said.
“Are you gonna?”
“I’m not crazy,” Laura replied, pushing the hot drill bit into the wood.
The day after the Fourth of July, Mark, who was usually early, wasn’t in the lab when Laura arrived, so Barry gave Laura the keys to the Suburban and she drove out to the Purdue Ag Center where the Entomology team cut swaths in the corn plantation at the Monsanto plot. She told herself it was fun, and tried to imagine what Mark would do. Take your hoe blade and slice off the stalks, she whispered to herself, imitating his low voice. Swing the hoe round and round like a gladiator.
In the distance, heads bobbed in and out of the green.
Mark showed up at noon, just before they took lunch.
“Laura,” he said faintly.
“Why are you whispering?” she whispered back. She swatted a mosquito.
“I got laryngitis.”
“How’d you get laryngitis?”
“From yelling all night.”
“Why were you yelling?”
“We partied at Navy Pier. It was fun, man.” He raised his eyebrows. “Real fun.”
“Oh yeah?” She asked. “How fun?”
Laura flinched. “Excuse me?”
Mark glanced over his shoulder, then motioned for Laura to come closer. “I got five blow jobs,” he whispered.
“Five,” he whispered, grinning, his jaw jutting out. “Gospel Truth.” Laura frowned, trying to imagine what this could mean. She yanked a jimson weed out of the ground. Bits of dirt pelted her in the face. She hadn’t given five blowjobs in her entire life. The look on Mark’s face suggested she hadn’t granted them the importance they deserved.
“Laura,” he whispered.
“I don’t really have laryngitis,” he said, in his normal voice. She punched him in the shoulder. He laughed. She punched him again.
At home, Molly was on the couch, eating a low fat yogurt, aiming the remote at the television: a rerun of Saturday Night Live. She was wearing one of Jared’s band’s shirts, which was weird because the shirt was not black, it was red, and it was a known fact that Molly wore only black.
“How’s it going?” Laura asked.
Molly shrugged. She spooned a glob of pink yogurt onto the silver ball on her tongue. She laughed at the television. Phil Hartman was doing Caveman Lawyer. “Christ,” Molly said, shaking her head.
“How’s the apartment hunting?” Laura asked.
“I think I’ve found a place.”
“I bet that’s a relief,” Laura said.
Laura headed for the shower. There was dirt under her nails and her arms were stinging and her back was sore. In the shower, she thought of Mark, wandering the earth for blowjobs and fights. Soap stung her eyes. She held both eyes open and let the water come in.
On her 14th day of work, they dug up corn roots. Mark took off his T-shirt and tied it around his head. Laura did the same, even though her sportsbra-ed torso revealed little bulges of cottage cheesey fat. Mark’s torso was lean and hairless and tanned and defined. His nipples were tiny erect points. Laura wondered how many had tongued them. His right pec had a tattoo on it—some kind of Chinese character. “What’s it mean?” she asked.
“Can’t tell you,” Mark said, his mouth sphinctering up. The tattoo looked cool there on his pecs—smooth and mysterious—and she fought an urge to touch it with her thumb. Instead, she slapped him in the back of the head. “Sorry,” she said, and he slugged her softly in the belly, which made her flinch: he would know, now, how soft she really was.
On the 24th day, they dug up little troughs around young corn plants and dropped squirming black caterpillars inside, and covered them gently with dirt. The caterpillars had been Fed Exed in plastic tubs. In a few hours, thanks to DOW Chemicals, they would begin dying. “Death,” Laura said, mashing one into the dirt.
“Yeah,” Mark said.
“What do you think about when you think about it?”
“Heaven,” he said. “Hell.”
“You really believe that?”
“Sure,” he said, holding up one of the caterpillars. It wasn’t moving. “You ever go to church?” She nodded.
“Don’t you remember when Jesus told his disciples, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also”?”
Mark snickered. “You ain’t afraid of hell are you?”
“Not enough to let some church dictate everything I do.”
“I don’t believe everything they teach.”
“Some stuffs fucked up,” Mark said, looking out across the field. “The Apostolic church, man. They don’t allow you to date. You have to do stuff in groups. And when you want to marry somebody, you tell a brother, and he goes to an elder, and the elder asks the girl’s father, and . . .”
“Why do you go then?”
“I told you,” he said, pulling a weed from the soil. “I’m repenting.”
When Laura came home that evening, Jared and Molly were playing Resident Evil on Jared’s computer. Molly had already beaten the game. She was kneeling on the floor, trying to get Jared through the next to last level. Her arm was propped on Jared’s shoulder.
“What’s up?” Laura asked.
“Just a sec,” Jared said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “I’m about to kill this last guy.” Laura waited for Molly to move her arm, for Jared to finish the game. Jared’s man died at the hands of the undead. Molly clicked “Reset.” Laura went to the kitchen, and peeled open a pudding. She told herself she didn’t care. And she didn’t.
On her 37th day of work, as they drove out to Muncie, Mark told Laura she should never replicate the signs he was making with his hands. She laughed. He didn’t. The signs were serious. So serious he couldn’t tell her what they meant. “You don’t want to know,” he said. He’d been in a gang, up near Gary. Those guys in Lafayette, he said, with one leg of their jeans pulled up and the handkerchiefs on their heads, they didn’t have a clue about gangs.
“Gangs aren’t about style. Gangs are about families.”
“You were in a gang?”
“I can’t talk about it.”
“You can tell me. I’m cool.”
“It’s not about cool, Laura. It’s about protecting each other.”
She waited for him to laugh, to tell her it was all one big joke, but he didn’t, and when he changed the subject by telling her how the woman in the red car they’d just passed had once given him cocaine and let him ride her four-wheeler, she let talk of gangs slip away.
“If I tell you something,” Mark said, “You swear you won’t tell nobody?” They were washing corn roots. The day before the crew had driven to a site at Columbus and dug up 600 plants. It had been hot. Horseflies had divebombed them. Mosquitoes had gone for their ears. They’d dug hard for a long time, numbered the roots with permanent ink, bagged them, and loaded them into a truck. Now they sprayed them with hoses and high-pressure guns that shot fine streams of stinging mist. The roots looked like baby aliens with white tentacles for hair.
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“Not even your girlfriend.”
“Not even my girlfriend.” Here it comes, she thought. I killed a man. I killed somebody. Or, I’m gay, too. Her heart rippled. “My stepfather used to beat the living shit out of me, Laura.”
He’d gotten smacked with a screwdriver, a hammer, a brick. He told her about fights at school, about being shipped to Indianapolis for the summer where his uncle, a gym owner, taught him to box. It was like a TNT movie. He was the Champ.
She pictured him bloody and sweaty and bruised. She imagined him victorious, unattainable, flanked by gorgeous blondes.
Jared broke up with Laura one day when she came home from work. She was stuffing her jeans and socks and T-shirt, all black with dirt, into the washing machine.
“Is it Molly?” she asked, grabbing a dirty towel from the hamper and wrapping it around her body.
“Molly? Of course not. I’m just questioning some things about my life right now. I need a change.”
“Maybe you could repent,” Laura said. “It seems to be working for another asshole I know.”
“Laura, there’s no need to—”
“Maybe you could integrate yourself into a gang.”
“I can see this isn’t going anywhere.”
“Or, maybe you could fuck off,” she smirked. Jared’s eyes began to tear up. He bit his lip and looked the other way. “Sorry,” she whispered, trying to sound like she meant it.
Laura and Jared and Molly continued to live together. Jared slept on the floor now, but many nights Laura fell asleep to the sound of him talking to Molly in the living room and woke up to visions of Mark evaporating.
Laura knew that once school started and she quit work, she wouldn’t see Mark again. She knew he wouldn’t give her his number unless she asked for it. She knew he’d give her one of those goodbye hugs big robust men give each other—the kind with the hand thud against the back—and say they should go fishing or something. And, one day, she’d try to call him. A woman would answer, and when Laura asked for Mark, the woman would say wrong number.
Her last day at work, Barry asked if Laura and Mark would go up to Valparaiso to count aphids. In the fields they took off their shirts again and wrapped them around their heads. They dove into a rye field, and leaped back out, and the field held an impression of their bodies. In the soybean field they found no aphids. But they weren’t really looking.
“Isn’t it weird that they depend on us to be, like, highly accurate, but in reality we aren’t?” Laura asked.
“You think too much,” Mark said. He chewed a blade of grass, blew a strand from his tongue. It landed on her arm. She flicked it away. “But you know what?”
“It’s gonna suck when you quit. Who am I going to talk to?”
“Please. Brent’s a fuck up. Let’s go,” he said, spitting the grass out of his mouth. “We have to make a stop on the way back.”
“Why are you turning off here?” she asked. They had the windows down, Creed blasting through the stereo. It was hot.
She imagined Mark would stop the truck and they’d tumble into a drainage ditch. You are not a lesbian, he’d say, and she’d say Of course not, stupid.
Instead, Mark pulled up at a small, brown, ranch-style house. Three small, unidentifiable dogs came leaping out of nowhere. “This is my mom’s house,” he said.
Mark’s mom looked like him. Lean and dark. Thin lips. Blonde hair, cut like a boy’s. Inside the house Mark showed Laura a stuffed frog he’d won at the fair, a Glamour Shot of his sister wearing a cowboy hat, and a saw blade that had the seasons painted on it. “Pretty neat, huh?” He led her through the house, then out into the back yard, where there was an above-ground pool.
“I don’t have a suit,” she said.
“Don’t matter,” he said. “Just go in your clothes.”
The flimsy metal ladder burned their feet and palms as they climbed up to the hot aluminum poolside. They jumped in. It was cold.
Mark said they should race across the pool. They did. He won. “We should wrestle,” he said. They did. He won. He wanted to know who could hold their breath longer, who could swim furthest underwater, who could make the biggest splash. He could. “We had a big party here once,” he whispered. He glanced at his mom, who’d brought out some purple bath towels and stacked them in a chair.
“Yeah. Everybody took their clothes off. EVERYBODY went skinny dipping. Everybody.”
“Were there girls?” she asked, her head against his smooth, muscular back.
“Of course there were girls,” he said. “You would have loved it.”
He grabbed her and carried her through the water. She closed her eyes and held on. He lifted her out of the water. He let her fall. Then he pushed her to the bottom with his feet.
When she couldn’t get up, she panicked. She thought he might be drowning her, and a picture flashed in her mind: his mother— standing over the edge of the pool, a glass of lemonade in her hand—peering into the water. Laura reached for him but her arms weren’t long enough. Just when she thought her lungs would burst, he stopped.
She surged up coughing. Water dribbled from her nose. It burned. “What the fuck?”
He laughed. She punched him in the tattoo—hard. He tried to grab her arm when she went for his face, but it was slippery, and her finger went into his eye. He leaped back. She gasped. Oh God, she thought, I’ve blinded him.
“Let me see,” she said. She was surprised when he let her look. She held open the eye. Red flesh. Veins. White ball. What had it seen?
“There’s a scratch,” she said. His face was so close she could see into his pores. Before she could stop herself, her lips touched his.
At first, he kissed back. But then he said “whoa” and eased her away. He rubbed his eye and, holding it shut, walked through the water and climbed out of the pool. Laura followed, needing to breathe heavily but trying not to.
Mark’s mom had placed a bowl of muskmelon and an open bag of greasy barbeque potato chips on a table in the shade of an umbrella. She was smoking a very thin, very long cigarette. Mark held out his hand; she gave him the cigarette. He took a couple of drags, blew the smoke out his nose, then handed it back. “What’s wrong?” his mom asked. He was opening and squeezing shut the hurt eye.
“Nothin’,” he said.
“Let me see.”
“Ma, no,” he said, in his fake-stern way.
“Fine,” she said. “I gotta go inside before these gnats eat me alive.” She smacked her leg, but she didn’t get up.
Laura ate a chip. Her hands were a little shaky, so she patted one of the mutts and grasped a handful of its fur. Mark frowned at her, pressing his thumb into his eye. Laura frowned. She took a piece of melon from the bowl with her hands. When Mark’s mom wasn’t looking, her tongue flicked against the pink cube wildly, as though pleasuring it. Mark grinned and, with one eye still pinched shut, shook his head. Laura chomped into the melon and grinned. The cold hurt her teeth, and as the juice ran down her chin, she wondered if, later, Mark would tell someone: Man this lesbian totally tried to hit on me, or Man, this girl who told me she was a lesbian, but wasn’t, totally tried to hit on me or Man, this girl who told me she was a lesbian, but wasn’t, totally tried to hit on me, then acted like she wasn’t trying to. Gospel truth. “Barry’s gonna be wondering where we are,” Mark said.
Let him wonder, Laura thought. It was her last day. She could lie here, for awhile, in the chair, with the dog and the chips and the melon and the mom. She wanted Mark to tell more stories, wanted a cheap, cold beer to go with them. Tell me something I don’t know, she thought. Something impossible.
But there would be no more stories. Stories were over. Mark was sliding his feet into his shoes, his torso into the Army shirt. He kissed his mother goodbye on the lips, and slung the keys to the Entomology Team suburban at Laura. They stung when they hit her in the chest, but she was glad to be the one driving. She was ready to go fast with the windows down. She was ready to make Mark yell slow down, ready to stomp the pedal and surge forward, their terrified laughs sucked up by the wind.