Not hey Zach or son or demon monster from hell, just you boy like it didn’t much matter one way or t’other if I answered or flipped him the bird. Maybe he feared I’d answer back, ask a question, or … God forbid … touch him.
When you’re slow or special, when you don’t fit the box, none of them, not a one took time to see if the box might be made different, made special in the way special was meant to be. Thing was … I wasn’t slow and I wasn’t special, not in that way.
“Stop lollygagging, boy.” Pa had clear line ’o sight down the aisle I was supposed to be organizing, pulling old inventory to the front, shoving newer stuff in the back. Never figured why that made much sense. It wasn’t like canning jars had a use-by-date. What they had was dust. And marks where fingers touched.
If you did anything, seemed to me ragging off that dust, rubbing it ‘til it was shiny and new again, made a hell of a lot more sense than just stacking dusty shit on top of other dusty shit, hoping the customer’d be too stupid to go digging past the piles for something nice and clean.
“Carrot and stick, boy.”
I looked up at that. Pa had a thing made me nervous. He seemed to read my mind, know what I was thinking before I thought it, especially when it came to me thinking how—of the two of us—maybe I wasn’t the slow one. So he’d say a homily kind of thing, short and sweet … carrot and stick, boy.
My English teacher, Miz Meyers, a widow always looking to be helpful to maybe make up for being left behind, she’d talk about context. Not something you got right off the bat but now, with carrots and sticks and dusty cases of pints and half-gallon canning jars mixing it up, I tried real hard to see the point.
Even screwing my eyes shut tight and concentrating, that one wasn’t wrapping round my brain quite right. Maybe it was the context I was missing, or maybe, just maybe it was Pa not firing on all cylinders.
That was a thought I’d embraced as a way to get through most days, especially with Eddy gone, leaving me taking up space and offering too many reasons why things didn’t go well with the store or down to the Grange or the roof leaking or whatever goddamn thing he could blame on his slow, stupid, hey boy excuse for a son.
When God punished, he tended to do a fucking good job, spraying everything and everybody in the county with hardship. Pa laid claim to more than his fair share with me, seeing’s how I was the only one in the county needing Christian kindness and understanding. That seemed to put an intolerable burden on him and he took pains near every day to remind me of that.
I wondered if they all knew about me and Jackie, if that would take some of the burden off Pa, making it a shared burden with Jackie’s folks. Kinda like slicing a melon in half and giving each family a piece, like Solomon said to do with that baby.
“You done there?”
He made it sound grieved, personal, see what I have to put up with? Didn’t matter if a customer was there or not. They was all in on it, every last one, leastways the ones went to our church. When Pastor Tom made blessings, there was always eyes on me, hoping it’d rub off, relieve them of their share of the burden if not Pa’s.
Somehow Ma never figured in all this, though at home, at night, in the dark, with doors closed and me listening hard, I’d hear about wombs and her coming too soon. Or maybe that was me. There’d been a time or two when she’d cry but then the congregation started looking on her special, calling her odd things like long suffering and saintly, and it all seemed pointed in my direction when I knew a thing they didn’t.
They shoulda pointed to Pa.
Even when I was young ’n dumber, I understood how he was special, a business man. Pillar of the community. An elder in the church. Helped the farm folk through hard times. Gave credit.
It was like no one could fucking add.
“Boy, you stop sneaking around back there. Floors need sweeped. They ain’t gonna do it themselves.”
Old lady Mills, deaf as a post until it got interesting, shouted, “No accounts need a firm hand, Sam. You’re doing right by that one.”
“I try, Miz Mills, Lord only knows I try.”
Talking came hard at first for me, so yeah, I hung around, listening and learning. If you was on the quiet side, stuff just showed up, stuff people might not be aware they was saying or showing. It didn’t take effort to soak it up, not when you shut the voices down, the ones chattering in your head, always ready to jump out and take over a conversation.
“How’s the other one, Sam?” That was the old lady’s daughter, Henrietta. Spinster they said, like it was another burden.
“Eddy?” The cash register ka-chinged, a bag crinkled. “Off to camp. Got high hopes this year.”
“Came close last season.”
“Sure did. I’ve got my eye on the states this year. Maybe a scholarship too.”
“He’s a credit, your Eddy.”
Pa laughed. “Sure is Miss Mills, he surely is. You have a good day, now.”
The bell tinkled as they left. I heard the sign turned, the metal edge clinking on the glass. The aisle shone a rusty dark color, smooth in spots, knubby in others. It was worn down, old. I liked it that way. It had character, though I wasn’t real sure what that meant. The broom danced a final jig and I set it in its spot.
It seemed a nice way to end my day, standing on a floor that’d seen a whole town’s worth of citizens pass through, each one leaving a scuff or a chip or something to brand it as special, the kind of special needing me as caretaker. Pastor said pride was bad, wicked, evil, but that didn’t figure. How could that be when you worked to make it nice, to see to it so others could appreciate it like you did. How was that wrong?
“Took you long enough.” He walked down the short hall to his office. When he came out he locked it, making a big deal, casting a sideways look to make sure I understood I didn’t belong in his world, his fucking special world. “Going to the Grange tonight. Your mother will have a sandwich made up.”
Then he was gone.
Jackie was already there in our spot, our special spot. It’d cooled some so he’d brought a saddle pad to lay on the ground. It was propped against the ancient tree, waiting like Jackie. He looked worried or confused. I didn’t blame him. I was worried too.
He looked to me, looked up to me, and that was dumb and made me feel all squirrelly inside, anxious like.
“Hey yourself.” I took the pad and set it down, careful, turning it the long way so’s our butts wouldn’t be on the dry grass and prickly bits.
“Zach?” It was almost a whisper.
Jackie’s whispers was what got to me most, him saying nonsense, little hisses when what I did churned him up, wound him tighter ’n a spring. His whispers told me things. Suggested things.
Worried he was scared, that I’d somehow made it bad, I said, “We don’t have to, you know.”
What we’d done was still too new, too special. I figured we’d need time, the both of us, but it wasn’t working out that way, the time thing. Time didn’t much matter when all you could think on was how it felt, how perfect and special it was when he touched or I touched, and then other things happened, deep, so fucking deep inside it was like another person lived in there, a demon person sucking lightning through your skin.
Jackie backed against the tree, his jeans near flopping down his skinny hips, the zipper already undone, allowing a peek, just a peek. He muttered, “That ain’t it.”
He was staring down, down at the bump, the bump getting bigger and thicker and harder the longer he looked. Staring, with his mop of hair tumbling over his forehead, his palms pressed flat to the bark, bare feet shuffling for purchase on the gnarly roots. I moved in, hemmed him in with my own hands and arms locking his head in a cage, rubbing him, the bits exposed, rubbing on them until the jeans yielded and his cock was there, there for me to taste.
“Look at me.”
Jackie lifted his head, his lips parted, waiting on me to make the first move, but this time, this time it wasn’t right. I saw, I saw without hearing the words, his eyes speaking them instead, speaking them hard and soft and desperate, so desperate I said, “You won’t hurt me.”
“I ain’t never…”
“Me neither, Jackie, me neither.”
I moved him away from the tree, spinning him around, taking his place as he yanked the belt away and the shush of leather through the loops damn near did me in. The denim was tight, almost too tight now, and we both struggled, giggling, to pull it down, and then the reason was there for him, special for him.
Jackie sunk to his knees and then it was special for me.