Jordan used his dad's straight razor to rough up the jeans his mom had bought him for his seventeenth birthday. She had taken the box from him and unwrapped the stiff new denim from the tissue paper like they were wafer-thin china. “You need nice jeans,” she had said. “For school.” He ripped half a dozen holes in each leg, feathered the blade across the cloth at the knees until he scraped through, and slashed the back of the right thigh. He placed two drops of bleach near the left belt loop. When he tried on the jeans they looked good, and the edge of his boxers showed through the hole in the back of the thigh. His hair was starting to get long, too, like Noah's. “Badass,” Jordan said to himself.
Noah's little brother Marcus was waiting for Jordan at the bus stop, swinging his bright red backpack back and forth, flattening dandelions. Jordan and Marcus lived a few houses apart in a narrow strip of ramblers and moldy two-stories that bordered a new development—Jordan's dad called the new suburb “Little Boxes on the Hillside” even though its real name was “Meadowcreek” and it was in a valley.
“Hey Marcus,” Jordan said. “Any word from your brother?”
“No. No correspondence.” Kids made fun of Marcus for the way he talked, and for a lot of other stuff too. He was tall and elbowy and wore glasses, and every morning he carried the snare drum he played in band to school in a bulky nylon bag on his back. Jordan's mom was always telling him to give Marcus a call and invite him over, that he never had friends over and they would love to see him hanging out with kids from the neighborhood, but Jordan never called him.
“So the last time you heard from Noah was when?”
“A week or so ago, approximately.”
“How's he liking LA?”
“I already told you what he wrote.”
“Fine,” Jordan said, and turned away.
Two cars passed before Marcus said, “He's finding it quite agreeable. But he hasn't decided if he wants to go to UCLA yet or if he wants to come home. You could write him yourself, you know.”
Jordan grunted, and when the bus came he sat alone all the way in the back, as far away from Marcus as he could. He spent the bus ride working on his math book cover, a mess of flames, bricks, lines, and screaming mouths, all surrounding the words “Come as you are,” which was the title of his favorite Nirvana song.
Jordan and Noah had become friends over Nirvana. They listened to Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and Mudhoney, too, but they always returned to Nirvana. Once, Noah hitchhiked the sixty miles from their Seattle suburb to Olympia to hear them play in a dorm room. This was five years, ago, back in eighty-eight, before their first album came out. “I was just fourteen, all alone, surrounded by these drunk college guys,” Noah told Jordan. “The only high-school kid there. And it was so crowded, but it was Nirvana. I was right there. I could touch them.”
Noah had listened to the whole set and when the band stopped the fans had pushed their way out into the night to light up cigarettes. Noah walked away from the dorms, through the playground of an apartment complex and into the woods, and he grew bigger and bigger, swelling up until his shoulders brushed pine boughs and his footsteps rumbled like timpanis. “I was huge and cosmic. It was a moment—you know how it is.”
“You got bigger?” Jordan asked the first time he heard the story. They were sitting in Noah's room listening to records. “Like you literally got bigger?”
“Yeah. I can't explain it.”
Jordan stayed silent until the end of the song, then said, “I believe you.”
Jordan told a story about how his parents had tried to stop him from going to an Alice in Chains show, but he bought a ticket anyway and walked to downtown Seattle. This was a lie—his parents had told him he couldn't go and he stayed home and watched TV—but he sold it with some bullshit about the band's lead singer talking about cigarettes and Noah nodded. “Seattle's the place to be,” Noah said, and ran his hand through his long, greasy hair. Jordan was in awe of how grunge Noah's hair was.
That was last year, before Noah graduated and took a Greyhound to Los Angeles. He hadn't talked to anybody—not his parents, not even Jordan—but sometimes he wrote long, ink-splattered letters to his freak of a little brother. He would come back, Jordan knew, because he couldn't stay away from the grunge scene and all the little bands in garages and coffeehouses, and he missed Marcus. He missed Jordan too, of course, although he didn't say so in his letters that Jordan made Marcus hand over. He would be back, but for now Jordan had to talk to Marcus to find out what Noah was up to, even though he couldn't stand the kid.
Marcus liked talking to Jordan, though, especially at school. They shared second-period P.E. and third lunch, and Marcus insisted on eating with him. The first few times Marcus slid his tray next to Jordan—never across from him, always next to him, hip to hip—Jordan had cursed at him and ignored everything Marcus said to try to get him to leave, but he didn't, and after a while Jordan figured that he was getting something from Marcus, so at least he could give the guy some company. They always claimed one end of the long cafeteria tables, and nobody sat near them.
“I purchased the new R.E.M. album last weekend,” Marcus told Jordan in the locker room before P.E. “Do you like R.E.M.?”
“No, I don't. That's the kind of mellow pathetic shit my dad likes, and you didn't get the new album because there isn't a new album. Their last one came out a year ago.”
“Yes, that's the one I meant exactly. I'll purchase the new one too, when it comes out.”
“You and my dad should get together and listen to Simon and Garfunkel.”
The locker room smelled like pee and the jocks yelled and banged on the walls, so Jordan always changed as fast as possible, but Marcus liked to linger. He walked around in only his tighty-whiteys and socks, making small talk with the three boys who bothered to be nice to him: the retarded kid, the fat guy named Steven, and Jordan. Jordan was slipping into his track shorts when Brian, a big, pudding-faced junior from the baseball team, appeared.
“Hey Marcus, nice diaper.,” Brian said. “You still learning not to shit your pants, or are you on your period?”
“I don't have one of those,” Marcus said.
“How's your weird-ass brother doing? I bet you miss sleeping with him every night.”
Marcus grabbed his sweats out of the locker and shut the door.
“Come on, leave him alone,” Jordan said.
“Fuck off, Van Halen. I'm not talking to you.”
“You eff off,” Marcus said.
“Wow, you're feisty today—you've got to be PMSing. You want me to run outside and see if one of the girls has some Midol?”
Jordan dropped his shirt, pushed Brian up against the lockers, and punched him hard in the side. It was an awkward punch, thrown from close range, and his fist jammed down against Brian's hip bone. Brian yelped and squirmed and ran from the locker room.
“Asshole,” Jordan called after him. Marcus put his head down and pulled on his P.E. clothes. The boys in the locker room stared at Jordan until he put on his shirt and stalked out into the gym, where Mr. Fields grabbed him and muttered, “Jordan, a word?” into his ear.
* * *
Last December, a week before Christmas, a windstorm knocked a tree down on Noah's family's house and Noah and Marcus came to stay at Jordan's. Jordan's parents knew the boys from down the street but hadn't spent much time with them, and they approached Noah over the dinner table with the usual questions parents ask: family, school, friends, their kid. Marcus was getting over a nasty cold that changed everything he said into a whisper or a hoarse bark, so Noah answered, and he steered the dinner conversation.
For a high school senior, Noah knew a lot about politics and literature, and he talked until Jordan's parents put down their silverware and listened, food forgotten. Dad sometimes tried to throw out a stumper—how did the Democrats react when the Wall fell? What did Noah think of Rush Limbaugh? Had he ever read Thomas Pynchon? If Noah didn't know the answers he bullshitted around them. “I've never read Pynchon, but I read an interview with Vonnegut where he talked about him. Vonnegut's one of my favorites.”
Jordan couldn't keep up with the conversation, but he didn't mind. He felt proud that he had brought Noah, this eloquent oddity, into his home, and that his parents liked him. The conversation turned toward grunge and Noah talked about record labels, punk ideology, zine publishing, Calvin Johnson and his influence on Kurt Cobain. Mom and Dad nodded, and so did Jordan. When Noah talked about grunge he made it sound less like the noise and regrettable fashion choices Jordan's parents thought it was and more like something real, a valid reaction to the world.
In the afternoons all three of them walked over to Noah and Marcus's house and watched the workers throw bent shingles and chunks of wood off the smashed roof. Noah slept in Jordan's room on an old US Army cot and after the first night's conversation of music, school, and girls, he didn't talk much. Jordan didn't mind; having Noah there made the room feel new and right, as if Jordan had rearranged the furniture and opened the blinds. Noah had brought a stack of novels and news magazines from his house and he lay on his cot and read for hours. Marcus pounded out repetitive rhythms on his snare drum in the guest bedroom down the hall. One afternoon Noah asked his little brother for the sticks, please, and tapped out the drum roll from “Little Drummer Boy.”
Jordan and Noah sang: “Little baby, pa rum pum pum pum, I am a poor boy too—”
And Marcus barked, through his raw throat, “PA RUM PUM PUM PUM!”
* * *
Jordan's mom picked him up in front of the school. She had come from work and still wore her black slacks and puffy floral-print shirt, and she drove west out of the school's driveway and down into the valley, rapping her fingernails on the steering wheel. While they waited at a traffic light, she said, “So? Sent home for the day?”
“He deserved it.”
“That's what you say?” Her words were tight with anger. “This Brian, did you apologize to him?”
“Hell no. I don't apologize.”
“You need to apologize. You do not punch people. You're better than that.”
“He was picking on Noah's little brother.”
“Jordan, you punched a boy. You're not leaving the house until you call him and I hear you apologize to him over the phone. I'll call the school and get his number. And while you're at it, you should apologize to me for making me leave work. I'm missing the staff meeting, and that won't look good.”
Jordan didn't say anything. His mom looked over at him and her eyes slid down to his pants. “Are those—yep, that's them. I guess I should have known better than to give you a brand new pair of jeans.”
“I didn't want a brand new pair of jeans.”
“Well, sometimes when you're your age, you don't know what you want,” she said.
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“I don't know, nothing. Is something wrong? Will you talk to me?” Jordan crossed his arms and reclined the car seat so he was lying down. “Jordan, what are you getting from this?” she asked, and they drove on in silence.
Mom dropped him off and told him not to set foot outside the house, but she had to go back to her office, so Jordan put on his headphones and took a walk through the old neighborhood. He liked to walk with music, cocooned in guitars and cymbals like he was rolling through the world in a private bubble of noise. He wondered if Noah would write back to him if he wrote first, but he didn't know where Noah was staying—he had moved from his cousin's couch to a friend's house a couple of weeks ago. Maybe he would ask Marcus for the most recent address. Jordan bought a Coke at the little grocery store that sat alone on a block of muddy lots and headed for home. He thought about Noah growing to the size of a tree in Olympia after the Nirvana show and wondered if anything like that would ever happen to him. Probably not. Probably he would shrink down to nothing, running and falling across one of his high school's floor tiles, now a wasteland of ceramic and floor wax.
Jordan waited for the school bus on his porch. He listened to his Walkman and picked out a few notes on an out-of-tune acoustic guitar he'd bought at a garage sale. He didn't play, but he was trying to learn, and he liked the way he looked—sitting on the porch, shaggy hair, holding a guitar. When the school bus rounded the corner from the new houses into the old neighborhood, he walked over to meet it. Marcus clunked off the bus, banging the driver as he left with the snare drum case he carried on his back like a turtle shell.
“Dude, do you think I can get the address of the place Noah's at now? I'm thinking of writing to him.”
“Let me go inside and retrieve it.” Marcus brought him a torn-open envelope from his house and folded it in half. “Here—the return address. You can just keep the envelope. Many thanks for punching Brian today. I know you got in trouble.”
“It was worth it. I hate that guy.”
“Do you want to listen to Automatic for the People? I have Oreos, too.”
Jordan laughed and turned to walk home. “I told you I don't like R.E.M.”
In his room he wrote and crumpled up two drafts of a letter to Noah before he got down something he thought he could send: “Hey Noah. I got your address from your weird brother. How's LA? I hope you've decided not to sell out by going to college like a good little American! Ha ha. Los Angeles—I think Slayer is from there. You should also check out a Rage Against the Machine show, even though the radio plays 'Killing in the Name' every ten fucking minutes. You should come back—this place sucks without you. Rock on. Jordan.” Short but to the point. He stuck a stamp on it and put it in the mailbox.
When his mom came home she called the school and got Brian's home phone number. “I'm not going to talk to him,” Jordan said.
“You're not leaving this house, then, except for school. I have to get dinner ready, so tell me when you've changed your mind.”
Jordan shrugged. He didn't need to leave the house, really. He lay on his bed, reading and listening to Nirvana's Nevermind at the volume level one notch below where his speakers started to fuzz and crackle on the bass notes.
When he came down for dinner Dad was home and reading a novel. “Your mother told me about school, Jordan,” he said. “You need to call that boy and apologize.” Jordan ignored him, and he looked up from his book and added, “I'm going to your room after dinner and taking your stereo out unless you call him.”
“You can't do that.”
Dad flipped a page. “See if I can't.”
“Dad, he was picking on Noah's little brother.”
“Even so. You can fight bullies with words.”
Jordan wanted to tell him that it was Marcus's words that got him in trouble in the first place, that if Marcus didn't talk like a goddamn thesaurus then kids like Brian might leave him alone. But he didn't.
“I got a call from Marjorie—Noah and Marcus's mother,” Mom said as they sat down at the table. “It seems something good came of this—Marcus was very thankful that you stood up for him, although Marjorie doesn't approve of the way you did it. And she heard from Noah.”
Jordan put his fork down. “Really? He's talking to them again?”
“He's found an apartment and a job. He says he's staying down there, and he's applying to UCLA for the fall.” She took a bite and chewed, holding up her finger to tell him there was more. “You know, it's not too early for you to think about college. You could do worse than follow Noah's example—UCLA is a good school.”
Jordan picked up his fork and put it down again. His parents looked at him, maybe waiting for a reaction or a sign of agreement. He looked at his plate. Noah wasn't coming home. He had left the scene for an apartment in LA and some job and a shot at a college degree. He had left Jordan with Marcus. Jordan was stuck here, growing out his hair, ruining new jeans, trying to fix his friend's little brother's taste in music. When his mom touched his sleeve and asked, “Jordan?” he pushed his chair back and walked down the hallway and out through the front door.
He kept walking and turned onto the smooth concrete of the new development. He punched the air and shouted. He wanted to run, to rip off all his clothes and roll in the grass. He felt his muscles blooming, his blood sucking and squirting, and he found that he could see the tops of cars parked in driveways, then he could see the tops of garages, then the roofs of the new houses, with all the brown needles and moss starting to pile up by the chimneys. He was twenty feet tall and mad, bigger than Noah in the woods in Olympia, bigger than anything, and his footsteps exploded like fireworks. He turned down a road and reached the end of a cul-de-sac. There was a mailbox on a post near the road and he kicked it with his giant Chuck Taylors, uprooting it and sending it clattering against the concrete stairs up to the nearest house. The light above the door came on.
A woman rushed out, holding the neck of her bathrobe, to examine the mailbox. “Hey,” she called to Jordan. “You did this?”
The rooftops were disappearing, the trees growing taller. Jordan was at street level again, and his eyes were hot. “Yeah,” he yelled. He could hear his mom calling his name, running down the street toward him.
“You broke my mailbox, kid. What were you thinking?”
“I don't know.” The force of his kick had bent the metal post in half, and the box was crumpled. The door hung off, peeled back like a banana skin. If Noah were here, Jordan thought, he'd think this was awesome. “Wow,” Jordan said.
“Wow?” the woman repeated. “You think mailboxes are free?”
Jordan felt his mom's hand hard on his shoulder. “I'm so sorry,” she said. “Did Jordan do this?”
“Yes. It's ruined, look at it.” The woman sat down on the stairs and pulled the mailbox to her. She closed its door and bent its red flag back into place. “It's ruined,” she said again, and stared at Jordan.
“I'm sorry,” Jordan said, but the woman kept staring. “I don't know what I was doing—I'm really sorry.” He was crying, he realized. The woman lay the mailbox in her lap and rested her fingers on the bent post, and even while Jordan's mom asked her for her name, address, and the color she preferred for the replacement, she cradled the mailbox in her lap as if it were a hurt child.