Specifics of Hell

Kayla Rae Whitaker

The summer before college, James Mark picked me up and we went to Brian Tolson’s for a party. In a month I would be at college, a math major from the time I entered until graduation, just like my father. I told myself I wanted to do something more theoretical with my math, take leaps of imagination with what I did. But it was not in me to do so. I organized everything into lists: choosing one school against another, one girl against another. When I masturbated, I stacked the magazines at right angles before placing them back under the mattress. Later, I would welcome the change to digital. Much neater. The only cleanup would be the actual cleanup.

At Brian’s we were drinking beers in the living room when Brian’s mom came hunched out of the bathroom that still smelled of vanilla hand lotion and Virginia Slims, crying and holding the cordless phone to her chest. She said, “Aron Tolliver died today.”

We had done our best not to think or talk about Aron after the accident, about him being transferred from bed to wheelchair and him staying there. Seeing his eyes go unfocused and his hands turn into claws, and seeing him develop a dribble that never seemed to cease. He went from squirting ranch dressing at us to sitting at the special ed table, where a teacher fed him applesauce. It was worse than if he’d moved away; the kid we’d known who was funny-mean and administered painful wet willies and liked to draw boobs. It was worse, because we wondered if he was still in there, somewhere, trapped. At Jennifer Foster’s thirteenth birthday party, his mom wheeled him in and he sat in his wheelchair by the grownups, head tilting uneasily on his neck, occasionally making a sound. The rest of us had been fired up about this party, which included girls, and music, and the potential for touching the girls. But seeing Aron like that, knowing that he was going to be like this forever, that he would never touch a girl or go to college, put that fire right out so that, for the rest of the night, we wished feverishly to leave, and we stared into space and kicked rocks around outside or ate our cake as fast as possible, wishing for our parents to pick us up and take us home.

Brian’s mom blotted her eyes with a Kleenex. “Y’all are all blessings,” she said, grabbing Brian’s head and pushing her fingers through his hair while he grimaced and drained the rest of his Rolling Rock. “Y’all got your whole lives ahead of you.”

I caught James Mark’s eye. We both knew it was true.

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