My town isn’t big, but it has a lot of remarkable places if you know where to look. On that day, I was going to one of them, a place where people go to hide things.
You head out on Walnut Street to where it turns into a dirt road, then follow that until you see a run-down metal building. The town stores old equipment there, the kind of stuff that no will ever come back to get: broken lawn mowers, old snowplows, and rolled up signs from the Snow Goose Festival. It’s not locked, of course. There is an awning out in back with an old couch, where you can sit and look over the valley and the river and the cottonwoods. Mostly, kids smoke pot there.
That’s not why I go to The Shed, though. I usually go there to find the things other people have hidden. Now that I write that out, it sounds kind of creepy, but it’s not really that bad. Mostly, kids will hide porn or cigarettes or pictures of old boyfriends, if they are gay. I don’t care about any of that. I’m usually looking for writing, confessions. When you grow up in a town like this, you want to read a tragedy that isn’t your own, and that rings true in a way that Fitzgerald or Hemingway do not in this part of the high plains. My own tragedies are little ones. Since I got flattened in practice by David Cortez and bruised my leg, I’ve been relegated to back-up punter. The best writer in the school, Julie Harris, stopped dating me after the homecoming dance and now just wants to hook up in her car and not let anyone see us. All normal high school stuff, I guess.
I know my way around The Shed pretty well. Kids are surprisingly predictable about where they hide their notebooks and wads of folded paper. I go right to the most likely spot to hide some writing: under the Snow Goose Festival posters resting on a long rough wooden table. I lift up the heavy pile, and there it is.
The notebook is the kind kids use for class notes, with a flimsy green cardboard cover. It is slightly damp, and the cover sticks to the first page. The first page is blank. I peel it back. The second page has one word on it: Elegance.
I stare hard at that one word, which plays the amazing trick of being a contradiction of itself in a thousand ways. After all, the notebook isn’t much to look at, and it is in the world’s most inelegant place. And the handwriting looks like a boy’s, not a girl’s, and it’s written with a rough thick pencil line, not the lavender ink I usually find in these things.
The third page says this, and only this: I want something in my life to be elegant. The rest of the book is blank. The writer is going to come back and fill it in later, reporting on the Elegance Project once it is under way. I shove it back into place, then flop down on the couch under the awning and look out over the valley and the brown hills beyond. A turkey vulture glides over, and circles back.
At school the next day I can’t get that word out of my head. “Elegance” is a thing for New York or LA or maybe Cherry Creek, a fancy neighborhood in Denver where my cousins live. It’s not something you find in this town, which has a good cafe and a bad café and a gas station made of petrified wood and that’s pretty much it. It’s not a word that people use, except the math teacher, and it always seems funny, not serious, when he calls an equation “elegant.”
At lunch, Julie and I go to her car again. She sits in the passenger seat and I sit in the driver’s seat, even though it is her car. She likes it that way. We kind of have a routine, and I don’t think about it much, unless she starts crying. She stopped dating me in public when she started visiting our English teacher, Mr. Robertson, at home, and I am pretty sure I know why she is crying. I don’t really know what to do, other than the routine, so I do that. I start by kissing the soft skin on the back of her neck, holding her hair like a lariat in the palm of my hand.
She dresses differently now. Girls in our school wear jeans and t-shirts or maybe a hoodie. It’s not a dress-up place. But Julie is wearing something beautiful every day now. It is stuff that doesn’t come from here. Today she is wearing a white satin top with thin white straps. When I touch it, running my hand along the smoothness of it against her waist, the word came to me, and I say it. She says nothing, and then I feel her begin to cry, a gentle movement more than a sound.
At practice, the freshman who had displaced me, Luis Villareal, is doing most of the punts, so I go and watch the offensive line work. It isn’t my position, and I haven’t really watched them before except when they were on special teams, trying to keep me from getting slaughtered. It’s a small school, so the same big guys are on the offensive line and the defensive line, but they are working on blocking today. Coach Fajardo is showing them how to do react when the other team does a “stunt,” which is a play where the defense has two players cross over as they try to get to the quarterback. David Cortez and Tomas Fernandez are practicing the same move over and over, where they move towards one another and then apart, as if picking up the pass rushers. Coach is showing them where to step, and they follow his footwork over and over with their hands out front, fingers extended. It is fascinating, really, now that I really see it– on the balls of their feet doing a shuffle right, a bounce, and a swift step left as they watch Coach do the same. It is… graceful. It really is.
They have a late bus for the kids who do sports, which goes all over town. I wait by the curb with the other football guys and some runners and the girls’ soccer team. I look over at Tanya Rodriguez’s left leg as she checks her texts. It is taut and strong, and this sharp crisp line runs from her ankle to her knee, this lovely arch as she points her foot askew to the school and town and the valley behind us. The bus door opens with a hiss and we pile in. I take a seat in the front, next to Will Vasquez, like I always do. The driver of the late bus is Maria Fajardo, coach Fajardo’s wife. She does the same thing as always. First, she looks behind her, smiles, and says, “Everybody in? Are we missing anyone?” Then she closes the bus door, two folding leaves dancing together. Finally, she runs her fingertip along the big circle of the steering wheel, her bright red fingernail stark against the black vinyl. It’s lovely, that motion.
I tell Mrs. Fajardo to let me off at Walnut, and I walk out to the dirt road and The Shed. I have a half-hour of daylight, and now I can write. The sky over the prairie is crimson and pink. As I flop down on the old couch with the notebook I see the turkey vulture soaring away from town and back again, a slow high arc in the reddening sky.
LOUIS MILLARD is a sophomore at the University of Colorado. His hometown is Lamar, Colorado, which is the setting for this story. He likes to think that he is honorable, though that has never been officially recognized.