We were sitting on beanbags in the living room, Troy on one side and me on the other. In the middle was the Super Nintendo.
“Mother effing,” Troy grunted at the television, mashing the controller buttons with his thumbs. “Come on.” He pounded his fist into the carpet, held it up in front of him and watched his knuckles fade from red to white. “See that?”
I pretended I didn’t.
Each of us was a famous wrestler. Troy was Mr. Perfect and I was Shawn Michaels, aka the Heartbreak Kid. I’d locked Mr. Perfect in a sleeper hold and he kicked about, flailing his arms as he tried to break free.
“Gotcha,” I said, bearing down hard on my controller.
“That was cheap,” said Troy.
The game was called Royal Rumble and the object was simple: of the thirty or so wrestlers who entered the ring one after the next, you tried to be the last one left standing on the inside. Sometimes, if you were one of the jokesters like Doink or Goldust or Butch, you might let yourself get tossed out so that you could come back as Bret Hart or Macho Man. It was risky though, because you could just as easily come back as another jokester.
“What are you fighting me for?” I asked him. The ring was full of computer-controlled wrestlers, but Troy and I were still grappling with each other.
“Scared or something?”
“Of Mr Perfect? Right.” Mr. Perfect wasn’t a jokester but his finishing move was a submission leg lock, and there wasn’t anything exciting about that.
Just then Mr. Woody walked in the front door and yelled to us from down the hall.
“Hey, Dad,” Troy said.
“Hey, Mr. Woody,” I said.
We told him.
“You guys are a good time,” he said. His voice was low and scratched. It reminded me of tree bark. He stood behind us with his thumbs hooked in his pockets. He was smiling. He seemed to like watching us do the simplest things. I asked him if he wanted a turn on the controller but he said no, he’d leave it to the pros. “I’ve got some work to do out there.” He craned his neck toward the garage. “You guys okay in here?”
“All right,” he said. “Good times.”
He stepped out into the garage.
“What does he mean work?”
“He’s working,” Troy said. “That’s what he means.”
Mr. Woody had been laid off when the weather turned last winter, and he hadn’t been hired back in spring.
“He’s a contractor now,” Troy said. “It’s higher up.”
I doubted Troy knew what a contractor was, but I didn’t say so. I didn’t know either. I knew it was something to do with construction, though. Mr. Woody knew how to make all kinds of things, and Troy’s house was filled with them: the coffee table, the kitchen chairs, the bookcase, the clock on the mantel. My dad didn’t know how to make anything. “That’s why I work,” he’d said once when I told him as much. “So I don’t have to know.” Mr. Woody laughed when I told him that. “Your old man’s all right,” he said. “He knows what’s what.”
Troy said pretty soon he’d know how to make things, too.
He shrugged. “I’ll build a fort,” he said. “Out by the swamp.”
“You’ll need help.”
Troy nodded like he was granting me permission.
“What about a go-cart?” I asked. We’d always talked about getting a go-cart, pooling our allowance money once we’d saved enough.
“Sure,” he said, his eyes glued to the TV screen. “But engines are tougher.”
“Does your dad know how to build them?”
Troy’s face went cross. “Of course he does.”
It seemed possible, at least, so I didn’t say he was wrong.
The door to the garage opened and Mr. Woody came back in, smelling like smoke and cherries.
“You boys want to go play outside a while? Mr. Verne’s on his way over.”
Mr. Verne was a friend of Mr. Woody’s from work. He came over some afternoons and he and Mr. Woody would sit over cans of beer in the living room listening to Waylon albums and watching SportsCenter on mute. In my whole life I had never met anyone else named Woody or Verne.
“Can we finish the game?”
“Finish the game but then go get some air.”
Troy let out a big sigh. “Fine.”
Mr. Woody disappeared into the kitchen.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“Why don’t we head to the swamp,” he said. “We could shoot some.”
I said all right, though we both knew Troy was the shooter, not me. We’d been at it all spring and I still hadn’t hit anything but the pockmarked trunks of the trees along the creek bed.
I bore down hard on the controller buttons. On the screen, Mr. Perfect slipped out of a chokehold and reversed it. Shawn Michaels flailed his arms and kicked his legs in protest, but pretty soon he was going headfirst over the top rope, too.
“Eat that,” Troy said. He punched the carpet three times, hard, for no reason, held his hand out in front of him and watched the red of his knuckles fade. “See that?” he said, a smile spreading across his face. It was a funny habit of his, one I’d only just started to notice: the way Troy laughed the hardest when he was surprised by pain.
We left through the garage. Mr. Woody had left his cigarettes on his workbench. Troy pulled one from the pack and put it behind his ear.
“To keep the bugs away,” he said, which was what he always said. But the cigarette always burned too quickly, and it only kept the bugs away for a minute or two before he had to start worrying that his hair would catch fire.
Troy pulled the BB gun out from under the workbench.
“Today’s the day,” he said.
“Maybe,” I said. Troy laughed.
We had to go to my house first. I made him let me keep the BBs there, even though the gun was his. It was only fair, I told him, and he didn’t seem to mind. Shooting was only fun when there was someone else around to watch anyway.
He left the gun in the bushes just before my driveway. Inside, the TV was on. My dad was watching SportsCenter, too. All the dads watched it. It was the only show we all liked. We quoted from it sometimes when we played Wiffle ball out in the yard.
JUUUST a bit outside—
Troy was better at it. Even my dad got a kick out of him.
He eyes it, he tries it, he buys it!
I can read his lips, folks, and he is not praying.
My dad tried, too, sometimes, but he always bungled them. It made me sorry for him.
We said hi and scampered up the steps to my room.
“You left the cigarette in your ear?” I said once we were upstairs.
“So I forgot,” Troy said, reaching up and touching the cigarette to make sure it was still there. “He didn’t notice.”
“You always forget.”
Troy opened the closet and went for the box, tucked away in the secret hiding spot above the doorframe. I locked my bedroom door, took the box and dumped its contents out onto my desk. Troy reached out and grabbed the cardboard pack of ammunition from the pile. “Still about half full,” he said, tucking it away in his pocket. I sifted through the rest of the collection we’d dumped out onto the desk. It was full of things you couldn’t find in a million years if you’d actually been looking for them: a braided pretzel twisted impossibly into a cursive capital L; a French fry as long as a ruler that I’d rescued from a combo meal at Wendy’s; a penny from the year 1907 that had the words ‘One Cent’ on the back instead of the Lincoln Memorial; a piece of dinosaur bone that we’d found while digging in the backyard; an enormous booger of Troy’s which had shrunk from about the size of a wad of gum down to a thin hard scab; a toenail clipping from my big toe that had taken me nine and a half months to grow, still completely intact. There were lots of other things, too. The box was a perpetual work in progress.
There was one item in the box that was different from the rest, one I spent some time looking at each time we opened it up. It was a letter from a girl I knew named Margaret Wentz, a sixth grader, older than us by a year. Our classes had the same recess period. In the letter Margaret told me that she knew why I stared at her from across the playground, said she knew what sorts of things I was thinking about her and that she’d tell Mrs. Derrick if I didn’t meet her after lunch the next day in the red plastic tunnel that connected the slide to the jungle gym. I didn’t put much stock in her threat, but Troy and I decided I should meet her anyway. According to our rankings, Margaret was about the twelfth best looking girl in the sixth grade.
When I got there Margaret was waiting for me, sitting Indian style and wearing a yellow skirt with a blue pigeon stitched along the bottom.
“I might still tell Mrs. Derrick on you,” she said.
I hadn’t even done anything, I told her. I hadn’t, but still I was afraid. I didn’t know why. Margaret shifted around on her bottom, fidgety, trying to get comfortable. She looked behind her to make sure no one was around and made me do the same. Then she pulled up her skirt to show me her panties. I didn’t know what to do except stare at them. They were two shades of blue, cotton, with light blue trim around the edges. She took my hand and placed it between the whites of her thighs. I tried to keep my hands from shaking.
“Now you,” she said.
“Now me what?”
“Now you go.”
I didn’t know what she meant. “I don’t think so,” I said.
She shimmied up onto her knees and pulled me up with her.
“Kiss me then,” she said. I could do that, I thought. I leaned forward, lips pressed together in half a kiss. I felt her top lip above mine, up near my nose. The bottom one landed close to my chin. I thought she was trying to swallow me whole.
“No,” she said. “With your mouth open.”
She had watched too many movies. But I did it the way she asked. The kiss was long and messy, but it was something new and I was excited.
“Now don’t go blabbing this to anyone,” she said.
“Who would I tell?”
Back inside I told Troy. He didn’t believe me, but I didn’t care.
This kept up Tuesdays and Thursdays for about a month. After the first time, Troy and I found a spot across from the jungle gym where he could sit undetected twice a week and watch Margaret Wentz try to swallow me whole. Eventually I got used to the idea of pulling my cock out, too. Sometimes Margaret would hold it in her hand and feel the blood pumping through it, gently, as if she were cradling an injured bird. That was about all, though.
That was April. Now it was almost June, and school would be out soon, which meant summer vacation, which meant I probably wouldn’t see Margaret Wentz for at least three months. I wondered if I might never see her again after that. Next year she would be in junior high.
At night I thought only of her, of the red glow of the sun shining through the tunnel, the smell of new plastic, the air warm and thick. I liked the idea of being hidden in the tunnel but at the same time not really being hidden at all. I liked that it was a secret, too, except from Troy.
“You didn’t tell anyone, did you?” she would ask.
“Nobody,” I’d say, and my stomach would jump just a little at the lie.
“Good,” she said, taking my hand. “Me neither.”
At the end of April, though, Margaret stopped showing up to the tunnel at our usual time. She sent a friend of hers to tell me.
“She says you’re a bastard,” the friend said. There was a group of girls watching from about twenty yards away and I tried not to look at them. “She hopes you choke on a chicken bone and die.”
I didn’t know what I’d done, but I said okay. I wanted her to stop talking to me. I didn’t want anyone else to hear.
A while later I heard Margaret had started meeting a sixth grader named Billy Euland out by the soccer goals. Whenever I passed her friend in the hall or on the playground, the friend would bring her hands to her throat and play like she was choking to death.
“What’s she doing?” Troy asked.
“Nothing,” I said, waving a hand at her. “I think she’s retarded or something.”
He watched her disappear down the hall. “Huh,” he said, his mouth twisted up in thought. “You could hardly tell.”
But now it was almost June and Troy and I were headed out to the swamp to do some shooting. The swamp wasn’t so much a swamp as it was a trickling creek that flooded a couple of yards on either side when it rained. Right now it was almost completely dry. The grass was thick and it stood up to about our waists and made our bare legs itch. We had cleared a circle about four feet across where we could sit comfortably and wait for birds or squirrels to walk through our field of vision. We’d never bagged a squirrel, but every now and then Troy would catch a robin or a finch that stood in one spot for too long. I’d never even gotten one of them. Troy liked to remind me.
“Today’s the day,” he’d say.
“Maybe,” I’d say.
I looked over at Troy digging in the dirt with the barrel of the gun. The earth just beneath the surface was soft even though it hadn’t flooded in a little while, and he’d buried the end of the gun at least a few inches deep.
“I’m going to live with my mom for the summer,” he said suddenly, without looking at me. He said it like he was bored, like he was asking if I was hungry. Troy’s mom lived in Arizona. Normally he only saw her at Christmas and a week or two in July.
“For how long?”
“The whole thing.”
Troy shrugged. “My dad says.”
Troy’s mom had a boyfriend named Ted who Mr. Woody called Fred and never stopped thinking it was funny. My mom said it wasn’t natural, a mother leaving her child like that. She said divorce was one thing, but leaving your child? That was something else. It was a crime against nature. She said Mr. Woody deserved a medal for raising Troy by himself. I wondered if she’d change her mind about Miss Brenda once she heard this.
“What are you gonna do in Arizona?” I asked.
He flicked a chunk of dirt up with the end of the barrel. “Whatever I feel like,” he said.
He didn’t want to talk about it, I could tell.
“We’re gonna get you one today,” he said, suddenly serious. “I can feel it.”
“No,” he said. “For sure. I mean it.”
He scanned the treetops all around us for targets. “Think I can hit that big branch over there?” He had the gun on his shoulder. The tree on the side of us opposite the creek was misshapen and had one branch that overpowered the rest of it—bigger than the trunk almost, or at least as big.
“Are we betting?” I asked.
“Then I’ve got two dollars on no.” It didn’t make much sense for me to bet yes when he had the gun. Troy took a shot and hit the branch square, the pellet sounding a dull thud against the branch.
“Double or nothing?”
I nodded. Again we heard the thud.
“Shit,” I said. Troy was smiling.
“You should get your dad to teach you.”
“Or my dad.”
Mr. Woody had taught Troy to shoot when we first got to elementary school. Next year we’d be sixth-graders and he’d move up to the real stuff, the .12 gauges and the .22s. Mr. Woody was the only person I knew that kept guns, and he kept a whole collection. Troy said he’d started collecting after the war, which was something I’d only ever heard Troy talk about, not Mr. Woody. Usually Troy spent the Fourth of July with our family watching fireworks at the park because Mr. Woody couldn’t stand the noise they made. Our dog, Spider, didn’t like the sound of fireworks either, and we had to lock him in the basement during the display. When I brought it up to my dad he said it was because war turned people into animals, in small ways at least. I thought maybe it was just that Spider had small things about him that were peculiarly human. Mom said we didn’t know what we were talking about, that it would be best just to drop the whole thing altogether.
My dad didn’t keep guns in the house, and he wouldn’t let me shoot them, either. That was fine with me for the most part. Sometimes, though, I wouldn’t have minded trading places with Troy. For a little while, at least.
Troy and I kept betting on shots. He’d double up a couple of times, then I’d get it back to nothing, then he’d double up a couple of more times. I was down about eight dollars when Troy said he was bored. Somehow, winning money always made him bored.
“Want a turn?” he asked.
I took the gun and aimed randomly at tree trunks and low-hanging branches. We didn’t bet on my shots. There wasn’t any point.
A squirrel darted into the clearing in front of us, stood frozen for a moment, its head turning this way and that, and then disappeared into the grass.
“That was your chance,” he said.
“I’ll get one,” I said.
Troy laughed. “Today’s the day,” he said. “Like always.”
He picked up another rock and skipped it across the creek, landing it in the weeds on the other side.
“You know why Margaret dumped you?” he asked suddenly. He was staring at the place on the other side of the creek where his rock had landed.
I felt my cheeks go hot. “Why?”
“Because you’re afraid,” he said.
I felt my back straighten. “Afraid of what?”
Troy side-armed another rock toward the water, but it landed in the dirt just before the creek. “Of everything,” he said. “You didn’t even want to bag that squirrel.”
“Did too,” I said. I rested the gun against the ground and leaned into it like a walking stick. Troy reached out and took it from me. A group of three or four birds had gathered in a tree across the creek, and Troy put the gun on his shoulder and took aim. He fired, but he missed. I was glad.
“No,” he said, leaning the gun against a tree. “You didn’t.”
I was tired of arguing, so I let the matter drop.We sat for a while longer, shooting and talking. I kept an eye out for an opening, for another squirrel to wander into the clearing. I wanted to show him he was wrong, that I wasn’t afraid. But none came. We went down to the creek and stomped along the rocks and got our shoes muddy and plunged our hands into the water, hunting for crayfish. Troy picked up a grasshopper from the creek bed and brought it over to me.
“Look,” he said. He squeezed the grasshopper so that it oozed yellow from its sides. I knew from school that that part was the thorax. “See the tobacco juice?” he asked.
“Gross,” I said. “Get that out of my face.” I pushed his hand away. “Is that real tobacco juice?”
Troy laughed. “You mean like the kind you spit?”
I thought, No, like the kind Mr. Woody spits, but I didn’t say it. I liked Mr. Woody. He treated us like men.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Of course not,” he said. “Not even close.”
I was a smart kid, I knew, smarter than Troy, but somehow I spent a lot of my time trying not to ask dumb questions.
“Then what is it?”
“How should I know? Probably just guts.”
“Then why isn’t it just called ‘guts’?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a different kind of tobacco juice. Who knows anything about grasshoppers anyway?”
“I can name the parts,” I said.
Troy scoffed. “What good is that if you don’t know anything about what’s inside?”
“None, I guess.”
He had a point.There was a robin nearby drinking from a small pool of water by the creek. Troy handed me the gun and whispered instructions from behind me. “Here’s your chance. Nice and steady on your shoulder. Aim just a millimeter above her.”
I looked at the robin, bobbing its head in and out of the pool. I thought, All this bird’s done is stop for a drink, and now I’m gonna kill it. Then I thought, It sure would be nice to get one under my belt.
I knew I’d hit it. I pulled the trigger and the robin fell, just like that, no pause in between.
“Got her!” Troy shouted. We walked up to the bird. It looked like a stuffed animal, a carnival prize. It didn’t look real, or like it had ever been real. I thought I might be sick. Troy grabbed the gun from me and pressed it down onto the bird’s face. He bent down and picked something up and handed it to me. It was the dead bird’s beak.
“One for the box,” he said.
I put it in my pocket.
“Let’s go show my dad,” he said.
We packed up and started back for Troy’s.Troy talked excitedly the whole way back. He was happy for me, for my first kill. We both knew he was still the better shot of the two of us, so he could be proud of me without being jealous. Somehow I didn’t like it.
Troy talked and talked about the dead bird, and I thought of Margaret Wentz. She wasn’t a tall girl, not for a sixth grader, but she was still as big as me. She didn’t have any breasts, but I didn’t care. Some girls did already; I was afraid of those girls. Margaret had brown hair that she didn’t brush and a tiny upturned nose—a little snout, but it was nice looking still. I thought of her breath, the after-lunch smell masked by chewing gum, of her mouth around mine, open and wet. A secret, except from Troy. I hated Billy Euland for taking her. Troy had heard he was a fag, but I doubted it was true. Margaret Wentz, I thought, wild-haired snout-nosed beauty. She was athletic and knew how to tell a good joke when she heard one, better than most girls at least. And she was the only girl who’d ever seen my cock.
We walked the long way back along the creek so we wouldn’t pass by my house again. I knew my dad was probably asleep on the couch, the second airing of SportsCenter humming away on the tube, but it wasn’t worth chancing.
“She thinks you’re a bastard,” her friend had said, and then she’d looked back at the group of girls looking on. What had I done to her? Nothing. I’d done nothing. I’d only told Troy, my best friend, which was to be expected. “She hopes you die,” the friend had said. I didn’t understand.
I asked Troy if he thought we’d see Margaret at all next year.
“No way, man. She’ll be in junior high then. We won’t be getting any for a good long while.”
No girl had seen Troy’s cock, so he couldn’t be entirely proud of me for Margaret. I liked that.We took our shoes off at the door and walked in through the garage. Troy got us a couple of Cokes from the kitchen before we went back into the family room. Mr. Woody and Mr. Verne were there and the stereo was playing quietly beneath the rattle and hum of the ceiling fan. The air was thick and hazy. Troy’s was the only house I knew where people were allowed to smoke indoors.
Mr. Verne looked up at us from the couch. “Where’ve you boys been?” He had the same tree bark voice as Mr. Woody, but there was a meanness to it that made me feel shy. I didn’t talk much to Mr. Verne. I didn’t know him as well as I did Mr. Woody.
“The swamp,” Troy said. “Jimmy got his first bird.”
Mr. Woody smiled. “Congratulations, young man.”
“Thanks,” I said. The room smelled like a can of beer, even through the smoke. Mr. Verne got up and changed the music. The insides of the CD player clicked and shifted. When the music started he closed his eyes, a smile easing across his face.
“Ah,” he said. “‘If we could all sing how we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.’” He said it in a different voice, like was he was reciting a poem from memory.
“Don’t I know it,” Mr. Woody said. They sat around and talked while Troy and I played Royal Rumble on mute. I was the Undertaker and Troy was Diesel, the big seven-footer.
“Who’s who?” Mr. Woody asked.
We told him. We were both monsters in the ring this time, good enough that we wanted to hold onto our men, so we fought the computer instead of each other. They were no match for us. One after the next we sent them silently over the top ropes: Razor Ramon, Jake the Snake, Doink, Owen Hart. None of them stood a chance.
Mr. Verne was leafing through some kind of book on the couch behind us. “Mind if I give ’em a peek, Wood?” I heard him say.
Mr. Woody shrugged. “I suppose they’ll find out eventually, if they haven’t already.”
We’d thrown everyone else from the ring and now it was just the two of us, the Undertaker and Diesel, two heavyweights ready to do battle. Mr. Verne called us over to the couch and we put the game on pause.
“When’s your birthday?” Mr. Verne asked me. “September,” he said. “That’s a good month.” He flipped through a few pages of the spiral he was holding and held it up for us to see. It was a nudie calendar. Miss September was a blond with an enormous head of hair that fell halfway down her back. She was giving a look like she was partway helpless, partway angry. Her breasts hung off to the sides and she mashed one of them against her chest. With her left hand she was spreading herself apart, like she wanted us to see somewhere inside of her. I thought of Margaret Wentz and the times back in April when she’d shown me hers. Hers was nothing like this one. This looked like an accident. I felt again like I might be sick.
Mr. Verne asked Troy his birthday and turned to show him what girl he’d been rewarded with. Another blond, Miss February. She had short hair, cropped close and spiked like a man’s, a black scarf around her neck and tattoos all down her arm. She was straddling a motorcycle backwards and leaning back onto the handlebars. Her eyes were closed and her mouth hung open like at any moment she might scream. I tried not to think of Margaret, but that only made me think of her more. I stared until finally the calendar snapped shut.
“That’s what you boys have got to look forward to,” Mr. Verne said. He laughed. Mr. Woody laughed, too, which I didn’t expect. My insides felt strange. I felt guilty, but I hadn’t done anything. Troy and I looked at each other, expressionless.
Mr. Verne got up and said he’d better get going. He tucked the calendar under his arm and said goodbye. I heard his truck start in the driveway, the hard crunch of his tires against the gravel as he pulled away.
“I’ll be out in the shop,” Mr. Woody said, and walked out into the garage. Our game was still paused, the Undertaker and Diesel waiting for their chance to have it out once and for all.
“I’m bored of video games,” Troy said. I didn’t really believe him, but I followed him into the kitchen anyway. There was a plastic pint of gin on the counter. Troy unscrewed the cap and smelled it, winced. He held the bottle up to me.
“Ugh,” I said. “That’s disgusting.”
Troy closed his eyes and took a big swig. He swallowed it down and stood there a moment, his face twisted, afraid to move. Then he turned and puked into the kitchen sink.
I didn’t say anything. Troy took the rest of the bottle and dumped it down the drain. That would be trouble, I knew. Troy knew it, too.
I wanted to leave. I wanted to be home on the couch next to my dad watching the day’s top plays counting down. I wanted to tell Margaret Wentz I was sorry, that I wasn’t a bastard at all. I told Troy I was heading home and he walked me to the front door. When we got there he hesitated. He was worried, I could tell. He wanted me to stay. I stood there awkwardly, the dead bird’s beak tucked away in my pocket. Then I had an idea.
“Here,” I said, and I put the beak in his hand. “You keep it.”
He closed his fist around the beak without looking at it. I wished there was something else I could do, but there wasn’t. I couldn’t even say for sure what was the matter.
“Well,” I said. For some reason I couldn’t look him in the eye.
“All right,” Troy nodded.
He opened the door.