Alex Bauer comes up with the idea in Wade’s dad’s basement, which is dim and dank and thick with the smell of spilled beer and packed bodies. He’s heavily buzzed but the thought is clear: he must lose his virginity tonight, and, maybe and troublingly more than that, the whole thing must be a story worth telling. And though he’s enjoying this metaphor that the idea was created in this basement like so many single-cell organisms from the primordial ooze, the fact is that it is not from thin air. It was prompted by a photograph hung on one of the brown paneled walls - a portrait of Wade and his father sitting together, on Wade’s knee a football and on his shoulder one of his father’s meaty hands, both of them looking off into the distance past the camera, as if the photographer had just happened to catch them in the park holding a football and wearing matching sweaters and watching the sunset together. Alex might have called it pretty gay if he were a little less taken by it.
Because somehow from the portrait it is only a small step in Alex’s memories to the day in second grade when, for show and tell, Wade came in with a shark tooth and announced proudly to the class that it belonged to his father, who, while surfing once, had been attacked by a Great White. “It bit him in the shin!” Wade explained, trying to mimic the action by randomly grabbing at and thrashing around his own leg, “but my dad fought it off and when he got to the hospital the doctor found this stuck in his bone. He walks with a limp now but he gave me this when I was little to keep.”
Alex realizes he has been staring at this photograph for longer than he can remember and goes to grab another beer.
In middle school his class did a report about an interesting story told by their family. His peers told stories about rings made of melted down gold coins from old villages in Eastern Europe and about escape from concentration camps and about international chess championships. Alex’s story went like this - my dad grew up in Troy, New York, on a farm. His family used to breed golden retrievers until there was a fire one day when my dad was at school. The door to the kennel was held open by a rope, and, see, the rope burned first and so the door shut and the dogs couldn’t get out. My dad says he heard the sirens at school and wondered what they could be for, and then when he got home his family was out in the backyard, his mom crying and his dad sort of just staring at the burnt ground, and when he ran back to see them he looked around and said, “where are the dogs?” and his brother said, “they’re dead, stupid.”
The story wraps up to a horrified silence broken only by the quiet sobbing of a girl in the back row. After class one of Alex’s friends come up to him, grinning. “Jesus, Alex, that was brutal. I expected it to be like, ‘oh, but my grampa saved them all,’ or like, ‘my dad ran straight home and into the fire,’ or something, but, yeah, seriously.”
Alex doesn’t know what to say except for, “yeah, that would have been a good story.”
He feels at least some confidence that he could make a move on Sarah. He knows her through marching band - he plays trombone, she is in the colorguard - and he likes to think they have always been kind of flirty in a classic marching band way. He also maybe thinks those stereotypes about the colorguard must exist for a reason.
She is standing by the punch.
“Hey Sarah,” he says.
“Hey Alex,” she replies.
This was roughly as far as he planned in the conversation.
“How are you liking the party so far?” he asks.
She looks around a little. “It’s pretty fun. I came here with Mariah but I don’t know where she’s got to, I think I saw her dancing with someone upstairs earlier, I’m not sure.”
“Hmm, yeah,” Alex replies thoughtfully.
They stand there for a little bit and sip from their drinks and nod. Someone yells something about shotgunning. Alex is glad for this. “You want to come shotgun, Sarah?”
She wrinkles her nose. “I’ve never done it before,” she says, “plus I kind of hate beer.”
“You should at least come spectate.”
“Yeah, I guess I could do that.” She finishes her drink and holds her empty cup down in her right hand as he grabs a beer and leads her out the back door.
Alex has this recurring dream.
In it he is a proper adult – in his thirties or forties maybe – and he gets home from his job to see his own teenage son working on homework or something and the looking up to ask Alex to tell a story about his youthful excapades – except Alex can’t think of anything, until, suddenly desperate, he launches into Wade’s dad’s surfing story. His son is totally impressed.
He is the dark horse candidate to win the shotgun and so he comes in fourth or so, but it was cold out and he got Sarah to put on his coat so that in itself is a small victory, at least. They are the only ones left standing outside as he picks up the empty cans and tries fruitlessly to throw at least one into the recycling bin a few yards away.
“That shotgunning was a good effort,” she offers vaguely as he picks up all the missed cans. “A lot of those guys still had beer left in their cans when they dropped them.”
“Hey, hey, it’s not a competition. We all won because we all drank a beer.” This is a joke Alex made at a party about a year ago – people thought it was pretty funny and so he has made it shamelessly at every opportunity since then. Sarah laughs.
In Wade’s dad’s living room they dance facing each other and close together in a way that Alex takes as a good sign. She hangs onto his neck and closes her eyes to the music; he holds her around the waist and smells her hair. He is pretty drunk.
“I turn eighteen tomorrow,” he shouts.
She leans a back a little and he can see her say, “what?”
“Yep, it’s true.”
“No,” she says, “I mean, I didn’t hear you. What did you say?”
“Oh, sorry, I said I turn eighteen tomorrow.”
She smiles, “Wow! Happy early birthday!”
He is worried they might just start standing there.
“So, yeah,” he offers.
They just stand there.
He clears his throat. “You want to, um, you want to go check out upstairs? It might be a little quieter.”
She glances around and nods.
They sit on Wade’s sister’s bed for a little and talk about marching band. Alex says some funny stuff and Sarah laughs, and then they start kissing and he takes off her shirt and she takes off his shirt and they lie down and kiss except when he reaches for her belt she pulls away and puts her hand on his chest.
“Hey, I don’t think- like, maybe not,” she says in an embarrassed way.
“Oh, I’m really sorry,” he says quickly, moving off her. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s no problem. I mean I’m sorry, I just don’t really feel like, you know.”
“Yeah, sure. It’s totally fine.” He goes to sit up but in moving he put his head under part of the headboard and so he accidentally smashes his face into it. Sarah lets out a little shriek.
“Whoa, fuck,” Alex says, succeeding in sitting up. He puts his hand up to his eyebrow and feels blood. Sarah sits up. “Holy shit, Alex, are you okay?”
“I think so, yeah,” he says. He goes to stand up but moves too quickly; his face throbs and he reels, knocking into a bookshelf. A lamp falls and breaks. He swears again, steadies the furniture, surveys the damage of the lamp, and then looks to Sarah.
She has her hands over her nose and she’s laughing helplessly. He says, “what.”
She just keeps laughing. He swears and gets back in bed.
At eight thirteen Alex’s phone beeps loud because it is out of batteries. He sits up and squints his eyes for the bright. His lips are cracked and his head is pounding. Sarah is lying face down next to him, snoring a little.
She rolls over and sniffs as he stands up to pick up the broken glass on the floor.
“‘Morning,” she says, smiling.
“Hey,” he says.
Outside her house in his car, Sarah puts back on her scarf. “Thanks for the ride, Alex,” she says, and then, reaching out to brush the cut on his forehead, adds, “you should put something on this, too.”
“Is it noticeable?” He asks, pulling down the mirror.
“Uh, sort of,” she confesses, “but at least it makes kind of a good story.”
Over his morning coffee, John Bauer notes his son pulling up to their house in his car and throwing up in the snow next to the mailbox. He stands up when Alex comes in the house and tries to greet him without grinning. “Hey, happy birthday bud! How was your Friday?”
“It was fun I guess, you know, pretty chill.” Alex manages weakly. After his dad just looks at him Alex adds, “I guess I drank a little too much.”
John smiles. “You know, I think the first time I ever threw up because of drinking too much was on my eighteenth birthday too.” He takes a sip of his coffee. “Any other excitement?”
“You know this girl from school and I were talking and we sort of hit it off, I don't know. I think we might go on a real date maybe.”
“Hey, that’s great!” his dad says. “Tell you what, why don’t you go take a shower and I’ll make you a nice greasy omelet as an appropriate congratulations. They’re perfect for soaking up that excess ethanol.
“Mom says when you were in school that’s all you would eat,” Alex says.
John grabs a pan from the cupboard. “Oh, please, what does she know? I won a thousand bucks in a baking contest one time in grad school.”
“Yeah, you didn’t know this? My sophomore year a frat on campus had a baking contest for a holiday party and I brought Apple-Eggnog pie. The recipe was my own invention. It won out over, among other things, straight weed brownies,” he says, chuckling, “I imagine it helped that the judges ate the weed brownies first and my pie a little later, probably.”
Alex has not heard this story before. “Wow, dad, that’s sick.”
“Yeah, it was sort of silly.”
“What’d you spend the money on?” Alex asks.
“I think I just put it in the bank,” his dad says, “I know, not that exciting.”
Alex gets up. “No, that’s kind of cool actually.”
When Alex gets upstairs he goes to take off his pants and feels something in the pocket. He pulls it out and turns it over in his hands and one of the small memories he lost last night comes flooding back.
He had woken up in the middle of the night needing to go to the bathroom in that sort of still drunk way. He wandered down the hall and accidentally opened the door to Wade’s room, where Wade was passed out naked and alone and snoring loudly. Alex was about to close the door when he saw the shark tooth.
And there it was, just as he remembered from the night before: the tiny seam of plastic that went around the whole tooth – the type of seam formed when something is mass-produced by means of a mold.
The tooth was fake.
Alex has the dream again that night except this time he doesn’t panic. He tells the story about his son’s grandfather’s baking contest, and how he found out about it on the day he got that weird scar above his eyebrow.