Pops called it bittersweet, talking like it should mean something, saying words for the sake of it. But this time it hit home. This time it was simple statement of fact. “Summer’s near gone…”
Whatever came outta his mouth, he’d nod his head, nodding, nodding, every word got one. None of us ever cottoned onto why it was so. It just was. He’d nod and talk, talk and nod, and even old Mr. Willis, he’d be nodding right along. That made it hilarious, watching Pops mouthing shit, nodding away, and old man Willis doing it too. The cash register would ka-ching and that’d set both of them off. And they’d share more nods and words, old man Willis asking after the missus and the boy.
The boy wasn’t me. That’d be Eddy. My brother, the jock. Riding high in sports camp, leaving me to schlep boxes of junk from the back room to the parts aisles. Filling the bins with two penny nails.
Nobody asked ’bout the queer kid, shuffling around. Quiet like. Lurking they said, always lurking and looking. And that didn’t make no sense, not hardly. Not when you did your damndest to stay low, keep your head down. Be invisible.
Eddy had sputtered at Ma, “Why don’t he ever look a man in the eye?” Like Eddy was a man. All growed up. Thinking he had it made.
“Your brother’s just shy, is all. He’ll grow into himself soon enough.”
Maybe like a puppy would grow into its big paws. Made me wonder what they’d think on me growing, but in secret ways, ways me and Jackie knew enough to keep to ourselves.
“Yee-up. Just the dog days left. Farmer’s Almanac says—”
I stopped listening, wondering on how me and Jackie was gonna do it come end of summer. We was together now ’cause no one cared if we disappeared in an evening so long’s chores got done, skipping out soon’s dinner was over. When school started, we’d be up shit creek, me being a year behind. Him a year ahead, younger’n me. Talk about bittersweet.
“That boy don’t apply himself soon, he’s gonna end up nothing, nobody.” I already was, stacking boxes, counting out one- and two-pennies, sweeping dusty floors.
“Leave him alone, hon. He ain’t found his way yet. He’s just a mite slow.” Pops would grumble. Grumble and nod, nod and grumble.
One of the widowed ladies from up the street squeezed past, making sure she didn’t touch. Like I had cooties, something catching. Like I really was slow. I mighta said a word, under my breath. She hissed and moved on, her low heels click-clacking on the wood floor. Click clack. Click clack. She swayed side-to-side, damn near taking down the crap inventory I’d spent most of the day stacking. Swish swish, the hem flipping, smacking shelves. Then she was gone, lumbering toward Pop’s canning supplies and the big cookers and bits of helpful for putting stuff up.
I watched, lost in thought, lost in memory, lost in the feel.
Pops turned the sign, making it official. We closed early on Saturday. The afternoon had snuck by, with me counting nails, not counting minutes like I usually did. Minutes ’til I got to meet Jackie at the pond. Sometimes I counted back, back to that one perfect moment when we’d done it.
The jerk still wasn’t sure what had happened.
Jackie was way smarter than me. But on this, he was dumb as a post.
When you turned fourteen it got different, different enough it got remarked on…
My goodness, look at you…
All growed up.
Be a help now’s he’s a man, ain’t that right, missus?
Hey, Jackie. Let Lem do that.
It’s okay, Robby. I got it.
Dayyum, look at ’im. What’s that, Robby?
Seventy, seventy-five easy.
Yee-up, all growed…
‘Cept then they’d beat the living crap outta you, hiding the truth behind the lie—how you wasn’t good enough, not yet. But you didn’t mind, not so much, not like when you were twelve and stuff slipped past, not worth remarking on and you wanted it, you wanted the remarks. The puffing up, sorting you from the others, making it, making you special. Noticed.
Mommy, Mommy, look at me, look at me!
Fourteen got different, so different it was like everyone you knew turned strange, strangers, and hey wasn’t hey, it was more, it was… hey asshat, ja get a clue … and yeah, you had a clue, but if it wasn’t their clue, it didn’t count. You didn’t count, so you counted it out, all the ways you weren’t like them.
At fourteen all you had were thoughts, because when you didn’t count, you didn’t show your ignorance by mouthing off, because when you did, you most always did it alone, lonely, lonely and different.
Lonely made you small, even if you wasn’t. Different made it worse, so much worse you shrank, you shrank in front of them, all of them, the ones who were small and pushy and had words on the tip of their tongues, smart mouth tongues, tongues that sometimes licked an ear and made you blush’cause it wasn’t the ear. God no, it was other things, but if you were lucky your ear’d be all they saw, turning red, poker hot red, red enough they’d laugh and poke and sneer and feel big, bigger than you.
Even when they weren’t.
The townies ruled most times. Hey farm boy! Fuck any sheep yet? And you shoulda stuck together, you and the few still left, but you didn’t. Time wasn’t a friend. It was up before the ass crack of dawn, doing chores. Running late, always late ’cause it was never easy, never predictable and shit happened so you ran and ran and ran, late for breakfast, late for the bus. And your big brother’d shove and call you a dumb fuck and yeah, he wasn’t wrong, but he’d make it up and get you there, not on time but close enough you shaved a couple precious minutes, avoiding the worst of them
Thirteen been bad enough, but fourteen, fourteen changed, you changed, growing in ways that made no sense, going gangly and thin and ravenous, running, running on empty most days. Some bulked up, the lucky ones, but when you ran, ran lean and tall and gangly, it made you stand out.
They’d sling arrows and rocks and shit your way. Those hurt, but not near so bad as the words. The words stuck, stayed locked up inside, way deep inside your chest, echoing in there
Not even the older folk, the ones remarking on you—like it was a good thing, the thing that was happening—not one understood how you wanted so much you’d have died for it, but that thing, and the remarks, weren’t what stuck.
Ugly stuck. Stuck tight.
All growed up…
Farm boy… Dumb fuck… Jerk. Stupid jerk. Moron. Idjit, stupid fucking, sheep-fucking idjit.
Shit stuck, it stuck harsh, it got to be part of you.
You could ask why but at fourteen, that wasn’t the right question.
At fourteen, the right question was wrong, wrong like you, wrong and strange. And the word, the real word you heard above all the others rattling around inside your skull—that was the one about yourself that made sense…
That word was pervert…
There was an old oak, old enough it showed its misery, drooping over the water, leaves and sap thinning away. Every storm took its bits and bobs like Ma always said, bits of this, bobs of that. The main bit that looked to hang on forever gave the sky the finger, but God had other ideas and sent a warning shot, splitting without killing it.
Zack sat under the lowest part, the part we used to climb when we was small and limber, but we wasn’t stupid enough to tempt fate now, even if others said we was. That bit hovered over rock hard ground.
We had other ways to tempt fate, other ways that was hard.
Zack seemed out of sorts, playing keep away as we settled out of the dying sun, still hot enough to fry eggs on the muddy gravel.
I asked, “What’s wrong Z?”
He thought on it, then said, “Summer’s near done.”
My heart skipped a beat. Time had stopped since that evening, just a few short days ago. Stopped in a good way. Zach said the words in a way it made it sound like he was talking about us, maybe not us exactly, but about time. And how maybe time was a bad thing, bad enough to confuse me.
“Uh-huh.” I asked so with a shrug.
“Ain’t gonna be doing this anymore.”
“Why not?” I knew why. It scared the shit out of me.
“You gotta grow a set, Jackie. They ain’t gonna take to me standing up for you.” He gripped his knees, making himself small. That scared me too.
“I don’t want no trouble.” That wasn’t news. But wanting and getting didn’t have an arrangement, not when it came to surviving.
He lit up, took a drag, held it in, longer ’n I ever could. He exhaled and the words mixed up, swirled up and around and between the vapors in the steamy shade, and my ass clenched and I inched closer, close enough skin touched skin.
We stared off, like we did, though now we’d lost track of words, lost track of thinking out loud, lost track of how it felt to have it all laid out there. Waiting, just waiting for us to show up.
I asked, “Am I a freak, Zack?”
What I wanted was to know how we got from summer being near gone to not doing this, whatever this was, and then telling me how it’d be like it used to be. Me alone, helpless and scared and filled with hate.
He put an arm round my shoulders, pulled me close, close enough the burn started, the one deep inside. I liked when he rested his chin in my hair, liked the feel of his fingers touching, stroking, squeezing…
He sounded kind and nervous and angry and sorta desperate. If I’d said the words, I’d have sounded just like him… “No, you ain’t a freak, Jackie.”
I didn’t believe him, but that wasn’t what mattered, so I asked, “Why can’t we stay like this forever?”
“’Cause we only got two weeks.”
He slipped between my legs, stretching them to the side, kneeling there, his face gone strange, dark and strange, and I croaked, “What’re doing?”
“Making the most of the time we got left.”
It takes me a moment, afterwards, to drag myself away from smelling smoke that isn’t really there, from brushing leaves – or chaff – or fingertips I don’t really feel stuck, but not really stuck, in my hair, to be able to comment on your writing. Because you picked me up with the first sentence and dropped me in there, left me to watch, hidden around the remains of that oak tree, and I’m not sure I didn’t leave something behind.