Every night of the summer Daniel and Juliana go road hunting. They meet at the Pig Stand on Calder Street in Beaumont, Texas. The Pig Stand is an old diner halfway between Juliana’s house on the west side of town and his on the south. The waitress, Ella, knows their names. She brings their coffee without asking, and even sits down to join them for a cigarette. They always play the same songs on the jukebox: “He Stopped Loving her Today” by George Jones and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers.
At the Pig Stand they wait for the regulars to come and go, sometimes each drinking at least five cups of coffee. They wait for the two policemen getting ready for the night shift, the young construction worker from Vidor who yells into his phone that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the two old Mexican men to sit at the counter and flirt with Ella.
Daniel and Juliana wait for the regulars because they are the constants in their lives, like moons orbiting, rising and setting, waxing and waning. This is the summer after Juliana’s first year of college. She works at a bank in Port Arthur, a job her father got her. It is at the Texaco Credit Union. Her father knows the head of the board of directors, who they knew was important enough to create a cushy job for her. Juliana goes early in the morning to deliver and sort the mail to all three branches. She files in the afternoon, sitting at the central desk, watching people come and go. Daniel does nothing except take one summer class at Lamar.
At the Pig Stand, after they are shaky with caffeine, they climb into Daniel’s mother’s red Ford Taurus, never Juliana’s own Jeep, and drive out to the country. They take Calder, past the once-grand mansions that are now crack houses, and the Mexican restaurants, and St. Elizabeth’s hospital, all the way until it meets Phelan. Phelan runs through still-nice houses with trees, past the high school where Daniel and Juliana met, and toward Winnie and Hardin. The strip malls and dentist’s offices turn to fields and clumps of towering pines. At the train tracks, once they’re out of town, they veer right and pass the Exxon refinery. Its stacks chug on, spewing vapor, in the haze of the yellow lights that hang over the metal structures like stars. They twist and turn through fields and at the stop sign turn right to make the loop through Winnie.
They play a game called road hunting. They have a whole points system and everything. Deer and domestic animals are off-limits. Hitting a possum is one point, a raccoon two, armadillo is five, wild pigs and crocodiles make you the Winner for Life. The armadillos jump straight up in the air and roll up into a ball. In their history of road hunting, only one armadillo has been hit. Juliana has no points because Daniel never lets her drive. He has 13, mostly from possums and neutra rats.
“There, over there. I saw a raccoon’s eyes flash,” Juliana says, pointing to the brush on the side of the dark road.
Daniel veers a little to the right, trying to scare the raccoon out in to the road. They pass the dark creature, and it slithers away into the night woods. “Missed him. Maybe next time around,” he says. “Good job trying to get the assist, though.”
Juliana feels she and Daniel are just friends. After driving for an hour, he takes her to his father’s shop on College Street. He parks in the back of the metal building, away from the lights and kisses her in the car. Until just recently, Daniel still had the same girlfriend from high school, Tressie. She never entered Juliana’s periphery. Juliana sees few people from high school anyway when she is in town. Daniel is the only one she still sees, besides her best friend, Anne. Since Juliana never sees anyone else, she can pretend Tressie wasn’t even there because she never would hear about her except when she was calling and crying because Daniel was lying to her. Then, Juliana just pretended she was carrying on some secret love affair where she was playing the role of the other woman, and she felt grown up even though she is only 19.
Sometimes in the car, behind his father’s shop Daniel unzips his pants and pushes Juliana’s head down to his lap. Sometimes she doesn’t want to do this, but she does it anyway because a part of her is afraid that if she doesn’t, Daniel will end their summer routine. She needs this. She can’t have him take it away. It makes her feel generous to give him pleasure. Anyway, she knows that she has never been good at saying no. Since she was a child, she wanted peace. She doesn’t like disagreements. And giving him this pleasure gives her a power she doesn’t have the rest of the time they are together. He dictates the relationship except when she makes him vulnerable in his pleasure, in his mother’s car behind the shop. Daniel says he won’t have real sex with her because he has already taken two girls’ virginity, and he doesn’t want her to be the third. Juliana was OK with this because she wants it anyway to be with someone she loves, and she knew she didn’t really love Daniel.
Daniel pretends like he loves her, though. “I want to marry you. No one else will have us,” he tells her. She recoils internally when he says this. She wants to tell him to speak for himself. Someone will want me. This is after he breaks up with Tressie. Daniel bought an engagement ring for his first girlfriend in high school, Megan. When she broke up with him for cheating on her with Tressie, he gave Tressie the ring at the beginning of the summer, but he took it back when she broke up with him because he was spending so much time with Juliana. Now Juliana’s sure he will try to give her the ring someday, and that she will certainly say no because she knows Daniel’s presence in her life is only temporary.
Daniel has plans. He has big plans. He tells Juliana about them in the car while they are road hunting. “I signed up for the Marine Corps boot camp today.” His whole life he has wanted to be a Marine. His brother is an officer. Daniel wants to do the same thing as his brother and go to officers’ school at Texas A&M but has decided for this summer to put it off and go to boot camp instead. Juliana thinks this is brave and manly. When he talks about boot camp, she has no problem filling her mouth with him.
Daniel is supposed to leave in August. He’ll travel to Houston to get his physical. Some nights, Daniel invites Juliana to his house instead of going road hunting, always after the Pig Stand, though. He lives on the south side of town, somewhere Juliana doesn’t go much. His house is white clapboard with dark wood paneling inside, set between houses much the same, in varying states of disrepair. His mom gives Juliana coupons to Macy’s and, one time, flip flops with cloth tassels tied on the straps. Daniel tells Juliana his Mom likes her better than his last girlfriends. His Dad does too. It makes Juliana feel normal and happy to hang out with his parents and have them like her; she feels grown up and comfortable then in her own skin. She decides this is why she can’t risk losing their nightly routine. Sometimes she and Daniel watch a movie on the couch and then go up to his brother’s old room on the second story with a slanted ceiling and wrestle on the bed. Daniel says things like, “It will be nice when we are married someday. You’ll wait for me while I’m away?”
She doesn’t know what to say when he says things like that. She just goes along with it even though she feels she won’t even know Daniel in ten years. Still, she harbors some fantasy of a perfect life—with him or anyone, really. For now she’s projecting her marriage fantasies onto Daniel because he is there and willing, at least in as much as it gets him what he wants from her.
They spend almost every day together this summer. She never really becomes Daniel’s girlfriend, even after Tressie. They go to the Pig Stand where it is awkward explaining to Ella and the other waitresses that they are not really dating per se. Sometimes Juliana complains about this situation to Anne. Anne has known Daniel since the 6th grade when he tried to kiss her while they were watching Top Gun.
“Hey,” Juliana says, “the first time he kissed me it was during Top Gun.” They laugh. Their friend Corrina also kissed Daniel during Top Gun. Juliana plays down her feelings for Daniel to everyone. Juliana does like him; he can be charming, but Anne tells her to watch out. She tells Juliana that Daniel is manipulative, that he fake-cries to girls and steers their feelings to make them feel a certain way about him. Juliana doesn’t want to believe this, but she still acts to Anne and others as if she doesn’t really care about him anyway; she sometimes even talks about Daniel sarcastically to her friends. She certainly doesn’t let on that she needs Daniel at this point in her life. That he has for now become important for her. She sometimes even starts to think, Maybe he is different with me.
Juliana’s family has lived in Beaumont for generations, but she didn’t meet Daniel until high school. She went to the private middle school before that. Beaumont is like any small Texas town: everyone knows each other, most people work in the refineries or off shore, they love their high school football team, and kids marry young. Juliana is no different except her parents have more money than everyone, at least everyone except the Tort Lawyers—Beaumont has the highest number of Tort Lawyers in the country. Juliana knows that having money has kept her apart, except from Anne, whose father also worked high-up at the Texaco refinery, so Juliana’s father ran in the same circles as Anne’s.
Her mother told Juliana she was slumming after she’d brought Daniel to the house. That she could do better. But her father was charmed by him, much as Juliana herself was. Her father liked that Daniel dropped his “r”s when he spoke, and that he’d politely opened doors for Juliana: he was simple. Juliana thinks her father probably thought, This kid will protect my daughter.
Juliana went away last August to college in the big city—San Antonio. It is a small, private college. Most everyone she knew from high school went to big state universities like The University of Texas, Texas A&M, or Lamar in Beaumont. This made her seem to them like a snob, like she is too good for their public-school ways. And Daniel himself makes fun of the brand new car her father bought her, the fancy things in their house, the fancy school she goes to. So when Daniel takes her out to the country with him, it makes her feel less apart, like she is accepted in the Beaumont world.
The days of summer drown away in the wet humidity that hangs around them like blankets. The smell of the paper factories up north in Buna and Woodville hover in the air and stick in their nostrils. They roll the windows down when they drive, to overpower the paper smell with the pines that get thicker the further west toward Winnie. Juliana feels the days until Daniel is going to leave for boot camp and she is going to leave for school slipping away, vaporizing and dissipating into the air like the clouds of vapor coming from the stacks of the oil refineries. Soon they don’t even road hunt. “It’s too humid, Daniel complains. Instead, they just drive, passing the blue shadows of the pine trees, listening to the country-classics radio station, Daniel moving Juliana’s hand to find the bulge in his pants.
Finally, it is the night before he is supposed to leave; the night before he becomes a Marine. He is leaving for Houston early in the morning where he will board a bus full of other boys going to San Diego. After dinner with her family, Juliana pulls up in her Jeep to the Pig Stand, and Daniel is waiting there for her.
It is a Saturday night and the booths lining the edges of the circular building are full. The Pig Stand inside is wood paneled and plastered with tin Coca-Cola signs, Elvis photos, pig paraphernalia, and 45s. Juliana walks in quickly and the door slams against the jukebox that is awkwardly wedged behind the door. She cringes in embarrassment. She sees Daniel has staked out their usual booth on the east side of the building by the window. She sits across from him on the teal-blue vinyl bench. Daniel is leaning over the back of the booth, talking over his shoulder to the cop with the mustache who sometimes helps Juliana with the crossword puzzle when Daniel isn’t there.
Everyone at the coffee shop knows he is going away in the morning, and they are all nice to him. The Cajun cook comes out from behind the grill to shake his hand. Ella sits down and talks for a while when she brings their coffees. The regulars are proud of him and wish him luck. Daniel and Juliana leave around ten to go for their last drive.
They leave her Jeep in the lot and head west, as always, toward Winnie. They make the loop three times this night. They stop during the third loop so Daniel can pee in the woods. “Watch out for those wild pigs,” she calls after him. She always finds it creepy when sitting in the car alone in the dark, and they’ve stopped near a crumbling house which always seemed ominous to her.
Daniel gets back in the car but doesn’t turn it on. He sits in the dark, smoking a cigarette out the open window, and she waits. She watches the house and thinks There are things moving in there. She waits for whatever Daniel has to say.
“I’m scared of going to boot camp,” he finally blurts out. “I’ve heard the loneliness gets pretty bad. If you’ll just say you’ll be thinking about me it would make it a lot easier. Knowing that someone here is thinking about me will make it a lot easier.”
Then he starts crying. Juliana’s never seen a man cry before, except in the movies. It scares her. Men are not supposed to be fragile like this, she thinks. She tells him she will think about him there at boot camp every day.
“I am scared to go to war. I’m scared of dying,” he says.
She hugs him awkwardly across the center console. She strokes the back of his head, feeling the bristling of his now tightly-shaved hair. It feels strange that he is the one crying and not her. At this moment, after all the past talk of marriage from him, she wonders at her own lack of feeling at the thought of him leaving. It is more just having someone there that she might miss, and that he gives her some attention. She doesn’t even feel close to crying.
Daniel gets out of the car and gets into the backseat, and she feels she is supposed to follow. She gets out and looks up and down the road where hazy fog hangs from the humidity. Inside, the car is cool and dry from the air-conditioning, and she lets Daniel remove her shirt and then her pants. He takes his shirt off and lays against Juliana, shaking every so often. She holds him until he starts kissing her and then he’s taking his pants off and before Juliana knows it her head is against the car door, and she is crying because Daniel is in her and it hurts. He no longer seems upset, but lost in pleasure. While she’s willing to make this sacrifice for him, she’s unsure why. Maybe it is easier; maybe, she thinks, she wanted this all along.
Afterward, they dress awkwardly in the backseat, and he goes quickly up to the front and starts the car and takes her in the direction of the Pig Stand. She feels happy and light, forgetting the strange way this moment finally found her in the southeast Texas woods, but feeling like it was behind her now, and she was grateful for that. They hit a raccoon on the way. She finally gets a point—one for the assist—for having pointed out the raccoon in the brush.
He takes her to her Jeep. They hug and kiss. She looks at his face as he pulls away, thinking it will be the last time she sees him, and she doesn’t feel happy or sad. Then she traverses the low-lying roads that criss-cross through refineries and swamps; she finds her way back home, back to her bed.
The next day, Juliana’s phone rings late in the morning after church. It is Daniel. She asks him, “Why are you calling me? I thought you’d be on your way to California right now.”
“I didn’t go,” he says, and immediately follows up, “Want to go road hunting this afternoon?”
They hardly ever go in the daylight and hardly ever on a Sunday. Sundays are usually reserved for family: church, dinner, lying around the pool. But she doesn’t think of this—she thinks of how strange it is that he didn’t go. How chipper he sounds this morning compared to last night. How revolted she feels.
“Why didn’t you go?” He doesn’t answer, and says they’ll talk about it when they go road hunting. She figures out some excuse to tell her parents for the afternoon without letting on that Daniel didn’t go to boot camp. He picks her up in his father’s work van. It is a blue Astro van with missing seats in the back, full of tools and junk. The familiar strip malls and dentist’s offices fall away and become pine forests and fields where cows lie like big rocks in the shade of oak trees.
This, she thinks as the wind from the open window dries the sweat on her forehead, is the last road hunting of the summer. I leave in ten days. I will hear his explanation for not going, and I will be finished with him. No wedding-talk, no third-hand engagement ring, no Pig Stand.
Daniel tells her he decided this wasn’t the right time and that he better finish high school first and instead start in the officers’ school the next summer. Then, he would be making more money when he entered the Marines. She listens, but she doesn’t say much. She knows that no excuse short of death would douse the disgust that has flared up in her heart.
She too has big plans. She plans to go back to her fancy school away from here, away from people like Daniel. She plans to forget road hunting and pine trees. She feels she will be more at home now among the cedar and oak-lined rivers of San Antonio, and among the private-school kids from Houston. She plans to never come back to live in Beaumont, but to fall in love, to learn things Daniel will never know. She plans to be happy. She plans for any memory of Daniel to flash only once in a while, flash like a raccoon’s eyes in the bright beam of headlights.
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