Chapter One: THIS
This is me.
These are my hands. I stretch them over my head. I use them to wipe sleep crusties from my eyes. My pajama bottoms are all twisted around my legs, so I kick them under my Voltron sheets. This is morning time. This is waking up.
This is Saturday. No school today, so I will eat breakfast and ride my bike down to the town center. I’ll go with Greg, and I’ll buy a slush puppie and that issue of Cloak and Dagger that I didn’t have money for yesterday. Then we’ll go down to the stream, and I’ll take off my socks and sneakers and the water will be really cold and the dirt will go between my toes. Maybe I’ll tell Greg jokes from my new joke book, and he’ll laugh and tell me I’m funny. And this is what I will do today. Hopefully the sun will stay out all day until it’s time to come home for dinner. Hopefully it’ll stay warm all day.
My legs are asleep still, so I sit on my bed and I kick them back and forth and I pretend somebody is mini-golfing in my room and the hole is under my bed. They’ll have to hit the ball just right to make it through my legs. I kick faster and imagine them closing one eye and sticking their tongue out as they line up their shot. I wait for them to swing, and I read through the Batman comic my dad brought me from Germany. I can’t read the words, but I recognize all the characters. I know Batman and Superman, even though I don’t understand what they’re saying. I can still kind of tell what they’re doing. It’s like the American Batman, just with different words.
This is my room. It’s still kind of messy, and I know I should finish putting my clothes away, but I’ll do that later. This is my room, and these are my things. This is my bookcase, and these are my books. This is my toy chest, my toys. This is my hamper and this is my dresser. These are the things I’ve done and things I plan to do. The sign on the door says “Matt’s Place.” This is my name.
The steps to the kitchen make creaky noises as I come down them. I make lots of noises on the stairs, and I wish I didn’t. I wish I could come down quietly, like I used to. But I can’t. I carry my book under my arm, and I face it down so that the title on the side faces the ground, so Mom won’t see it. I hold it tighter than I can hold anything. With each jump down each step, I feel it coming loose. I can’t help how fast and loud I come down the stairs. I can’t help the noise I make. These are my footsteps.
“Like a herd of elephants,” Mom says. She’s pouring Captain Crunch in a bowl and then the milk. She doesn’t want any spills. She runs her fingers through my hair and I eat my cereal and crunch till the pieces stick to my back teeth and the rough bits scrape the roof of my mouth. Each spoon drips milk onto my chin and I suck it up with my upper lip, pulling it through my loose front teeth.
“Big plans today?” Mom asks. I tell her about meeting Greg and buying Slush Puppies, but I don’t tell her about the comic book store or going down to the stream. Maybe it’s because I’m not really sure that is really what I’m doing yet, or maybe it’s because she thinks I have too many comics already, or that I don’t want her to know about the money Dad gave me or that I know she doesn’t want me to ruin my new sneakers.
She looks at the book while I eat, just looking the cover. I know she wants to read it, but she told me that she’s trying to respect boundaries--between me and her, between her and Dad--but I don’t really know what that means. The only boundaries I know are the ones I draw with dotted lines on school maps so I know where to stop coloring, where one color starts and another stops. But the colors aren’t really there.
“Is that the book Daddy gave you?” she asks.
“Yeah.” I say. “And a German Batman.”
“And twenty dollars,” Michael says.
“Twenty?” she repeats.
“And he says he’s going to get me a new Walkman but they were sold out.”
She opens the cover. “And these are clean jokes?”
I feel a burning in my neck. She might read the book and take it away and read it and get angry and call Dad. But she doesn’t. She just runs her hand along my head and then drinks her coffee. She tells me again that Nana is coming down for dinner tonight and to make sure I’m home by 3.
I put my bowl in the sink and grab my book and she yells at me to hold on a second. “Happy Birthday, Matty,” she says. She tells me I can open my presents after dinner. She tells me to be careful riding my bike. She tells me again to be home by 3. There are lots of things she tells me. Be careful. “There’s always broken glass on Cross Street,” she says.
And I leave my house and I watch her watch me in the window. I feel her watching after she can’t see me, just watching where she thinks I’ll be through the trees and she drinks her coffee and she has to let me go, and she does, but she can’t. I know my mom loves me. I know it because she tells me, but I also know it all the time, even when she doesn’t say anything. I don’t know how I know, but I do.
She’s my mother. That’s how I know.
This is the street I grew up on. These are the neighbors who I know, these are the neighbors I don’t. These are their houses. The ones who give out the best Halloween candy, have the brightest Christmas lights. The ones with gates and fences and angry dogs who spit at me and snarl at me over and over. There is the yard whose grass is mowed each day in the summer. The grass over there is as tall as me. This is the fire hydrant we jump over that promises water in ways we can’t understand. This is the sewer grate where we drop stones and pennies to watch them fall and listen to them splash and never wonder where they go. This is the hill that burns my legs and makes my breath hard, that makes it easier to go home, or to go the long way around. These are my legs and I push them down on the pedals, one then the other and the chain pulls and the wheels turn. This is motion.
“Can I see the book?” This is Greg.
“Be careful,” I say. I grip the book with one hand and the handlebars of my bike with the other. “Where’s your bike?” I ask.
“The chain’s broke,” he says. He reaches his freckly hands towards the book. “Can I see it? I’m not gonna rip it.”
“My dad gave it to me,” I tell him as I hand it over.
He already has sweat on his forehead and his red hair looks like it’s wet and he pushes it back from his face and some of it sticks. He goes cross-eyed as he reads. His lips move, too.
This is the town center. Take a left and it takes you to Church Street, which leads to Winthrop, which is the long way home. Right is the library and the town hall and the candy store and the comic book store and if you keep going straight you leave town and if you go even further you can get to my dad’s new house which is only one room and has a shower but no bath and it looks like nobody lives there. These are the places I know and the ways I know to get to them. This is the middle of everywhere.
“What’s a proctologist?” Greg asks.
I don’t know. My dad just gave it to me. I haven’t got to read it yet.
The slush puppies make my tongue blue and Greg’s tongue red. I watch it as he talks, and his teeth are red, too. My head hurts from the cold.
“Where’d you get that twenty?” he asks me at the counter.
My dad just gave it to me.
Everything in the town center is made of brick. There are stores that sell things I don’t know what they sell. There is one window that always has a picture of some beach on it, and a man who looks like Mr. Levy with less hair is always sitting at a desk reading the paper. He never looks out the window. There is the store that sells magazines and soda and cards and cigarettes behind the counter and has the slush puppie machine and the man who works there always smiles and wears a white apron. And then there is the comic store.
“What’s a spinster?” Greg asks, but he doesn’t wait for an answer and laughs anyway.
This is the man who works at the comic store. He is mean and old and looks lonely and there are bells on the door that ring when we open it and when he hears the bells he turns toward the door and frowns like he’s trying to close it with his mind.
Greg is still reading the book and laughing as I spin the rack and look for the issue of Cloak and Dagger I didn’t get yesterday. There is a squeal as I spin the rack and not once but two times the owner tells me not to wreck anything.
“What’s erectile mean?”
The rack has four sides and I spin it six times because I can’t find the one I’m looking for. The owner squints with one eye closed and Greg keeps leaning on everything and laughing at jokes he doesn’t even get. I start spinning the rack faster and faster, hoping each time that I’ll find the comic I’m looking for.
“What’s pedophile mean?”
The door is closed and it is really hot inside the comic book store and the spinning rack squeals and the owner’s breathing gets louder and louder and Greg keeps leaning up against things and there is no Cloak and Dagger, no matter how many times I spin the rack.
This is anxiety.
I grab an issue of Thor I don’t even want and bring it to the counter. I still have the twenty in one pocket and four quarters in the other. I give the owner the seventy-five cents and he opens the register and drops it in. I take my book and roll it up and stick it in my back pocket.
“Aw, Jeez,” the owner says. “You’re ruining it!” But he waves his hands down at me and turns away.
We make the bells ring again and we’re back on the street.
I pull the comic out. It has a bunch of bad guys on the cover. Dr. Doom and Kang and the Wrecking Crew. I don’t have many Thor comics. I open to the first page and read the title.
“This Secret Love.”
We are walking down Church Street, heading towards Winthrop. I hold my bike handles and walk beside it, so that Greg can keep up. He’s still reading the joke book, laughing loud so I’ll ask him what is so funny. He wants me to ask him to tell jokes, but I just want to read the book myself. I want to have my dad explain the jokes to me, as I sit beside him, so I can smell him. I like the way he smells.
I don’t want Greg to tell them to me.
“Hey, give me that back,” I say.
Greg keeps the book away from me, still holding it open, as if he has an invisible person next to him who is reading it. “Come on, let me keep reading it. You can’t read it and ride your bike, anyway.”
“I don’t want you to wreck it.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
I let it go.
We keep walking down Church Street until we get to Winthrop. If we take a left, we head back to my house. Right takes us to the stream and the park. We don’t even ask each other which way we want to go.
“What’d ya get?” Greg asks.
I show him the comic. “I got that one,” he says. “It’s a Secret Wars comic. It’s cool. The Enchantress is in it.”
I don’t know her. “I don’t know her,” I say.
“Sure you do,” Greg says. “She was in Secret Wars, too. She was the green lady with the blonde hair and the big titties.” I nod.
This is how we understand sex. Girls have titties or don’t have titties, or they have big ones or small ones. We know we want to touch them or see them, but we don’t know why. We talk about girls’ titties like we understand them, but we don’t. They are something we want to understand, more than we want to touch them or see them.
We pass by Karen Sinclair’s house. I know the house very well, and I ride my bike past it a lot, hoping to see Karen inside, or outside. The house looks small from the outside, and there is a doghouse in the side yard, but I haven’t ever seen a dog. I’ve never seen Karen at her house, except when the bus picks her up and when the bus drops her off. Sometimes I see her father watering the lawn, all white hair and big belly. He looks at me like he knows what I think about Karen, how I think she’s pretty and how sometimes I wonder what her titties will look like when she gets some.
“Maybe Karen’ll come out and give you a birthday kiss,” Greg says to me when he sees me looking at her house. I punch him good and hard in the arm. “Shut up.”
He yells out ow and grabs his arm where I’ve hit him. He starts sniffling. “Ow! You didn’t have to do that.” He starts crying. “That really hurts.”
This is how Greg is. Everybody who is friends with him knows he’s a crybaby. “Quit being such a crybaby.”
He keeps sniffling. “I’m not a crybaby. That flipping hurt. I’m gonna have a big goddamn bruise there, you dick.”
“I didn’t hit you that hard.”
“Yeah, you did.” He starts running off. “You’re an asshole.”
I don’t chase after him. I let him run off like the cry baby that he is, and I get on my bike and I cut down Cross Street. It’s the straightest street in town, and there aren’t that many houses on it, and usually not that much traffic, so I ride fast down the street. The leaves fall on either side, slowly, like snow. Some of the trees are dropping beech nuts, and these fall faster, and make funny little sounds as they hit the sidewalks. I pedal really fast and hard and build up a lot of speed, then I take my feet off the pedals and I let myself coast down Cross Street. The leaves fall on either side of me, and the sun is behind me, not too hot, and I can see my shadow, my arms off the handlebars and my feet out and through the shadows of the trees, I look like a bird.
This is fall on Cross Street.
I hit a fallen beech nut or rock or something and I start to lose my balance. I feel the unsteadiness of my bike and I topple over and fall. On my way down I think how stupid it is, to think such tiny tires can balance you up this way, that I’m surprised I don’t fall over all the time, and then I hit the pavement, my knees and palms getting all scraped up.
Everything feels so raw. White bits of scraped skin bunch up on my palms and my knees are bleeding. I think there is glass in there. My hands feel cold and sweaty and the pain is there, throbbing in my palms and in my knees. It’s so unfair for things to hurt so much, and before I know it, my back is shuddering and tears are streaming down my face. Please nobody see this. Nobody see me crying.
I get up and walk my bike the rest of the way down Cross Street. I take deep breaths and wipe my eyes, but I keep making tiny little crying noises when I breathe out. I wish my mom was here. I wish my dad was here. I wish that I had never left the house this morning. I wish I had never ridden a bike. I think about just leaving it on the side of the street, or rolling it into the woods; I never want to see it again. But I think about my mom, and how I know there isn’t a lot of money now. I can’t go rolling bikes into the woods. She spent so much money on it.
When I get to the end of Cross Street, I get on my bike and I ride down Summer Street.
The squirrels are running along the tree branches, and across telephone wires. They are gathering food for the winter. There was a cartoon I saw once, The Grasshopper and the Ant, but I know it’s the same for the squirrels. They know that cold is coming, so they collect all the food they can find, to get them through the whole winter. It’s so warm today, you can hardly believe that winter is coming, but I guess that’s what the grasshopper thought too, huh?
I know that Greg is probably down by the stream, so I decide to take the long way to get back there. I go back down Church Street, and go past the drugstore where I get my penny candy and the store where I buy my slush puppies and the video store where we rent out movies. And past the library and the old cemetery that Greg and I cut through to get to each other’s houses when there’s nobody there. I ride past the comic store and I think about all the comics in there that I want to buy, and I remember that I have that twenty my dad gave me, and I could spend the whole thing on those X-Men comics the guy has up on his wall, or I could buy that Batman where he’s holding a gun on the cover.
As I ride by, I think of the German Batman my dad gave me, and I wonder if I’ll ever understand what he’s talking about. If I’ll ever know why he’s doing the things he is.
I ride down Summer Street, coast down the hill, and I can see my house, and it looks different. It looks weird when you pass by your house but you’re not stopping there. My mom is in the driveway, unloading things out of the station wagon.
“Hi, Mom!” I yell, and she waves and smiles as I glide by.
I take the left at Winthrop and as I head toward the stream, I start to notice all the dead animals on the side of the road. There is a dead possum halfway up the curb and a few minutes later there is what looks like a squirrel squished flat in the middle of the road, with its tail shaking in the breeze. It seems so unfair that they would die like this, that people would just hit them and drive off, and I think of Springer, our old Calico cat who wandered away from the house and Dad told me got hit by a car. It had been up the street a ways, and I was scared that I was going to see it one day.
Greg is sitting on the rock wall by the stream.
“Hey, what’s ’cuckold’ mean?”
I don’t know, I say.
“Me, neither. But it sure sounds funny.”
Maybe it’s German, I say.
I take my shoes and socks off and roll my pants up. I start to wade out in the stream. The water is so cold, now. Each step I take makes a little dirt cloud in the stream, and it makes my bones hurt because it’s so cold, but it feels good to be here, and even though I know the squirrels are gathering their food for the winter, it feels good to be in the stream like it was still summer, and we have all the time in the world.
We don’t stay at the stream very long, because it is very cold, and because there’s really nothing to do except go wading in it, or to go fishing, but we don’t have any of our fishing stuff, anyway. We don’t really know what to do, because we’ve already done so much today--gone and got slushies, bought comics, went to the stream--but there’s still so much we could do.
I tell Greg we can go back to the Center and we can split a pizza. I’ve got birthday money, I tell him. We’ve both forgotten about earlier. He’s reading my joke book and he laughs even though he doesn’t even get the jokes. He reads a couple to me, and I smile at the end, but I don’t get them either. But I don’t want to just laugh so that he’ll think I get them. So I just smile.
It’s a weird thought I have, but I’m glad Greg is my friend. It’s good to have someone to talk to at school, and someone to trade comics with. I even like that he’s kind of a crybaby and that he laughs at jokes he doesn’t understand. It’s kind of who he is.
“What’s ‘zen’ mean?” he asks.
We’re going down Cross Street. I’m riding my bike kind of slunky, kind of back and forth so that he can keep up. I don’t know, I tell him.
“Well, the joke is what did the Zen Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor?”
The beechnuts are making their weird sounds as they fall, and the leaves float down and fall in my hair. I think about maybe getting a hot dog instead.
Greg doesn’t smile, or laugh. He says the punch line like a question, like this is one he is sure he doesn’t get.
“Make me one with everything?”
How is that a joke, I wonder?
The beechnuts fall, and the wind picks up, and I don’t know how, but I’m suddenly on my back. I can’t talk or breathe, but I look around and there is Greg crying again, and a woman getting out of her car, and she looks like she might cry, too. Where’s my bike? My mom spent a lot of money on it. I’ve got to be home by 3, she told me. I don’t know what time it is. I can see the leaves falling, so I know I’m on the ground, looking up, and soon all I can hear is the sound of beechnuts dropping from the trees and eventually the sound of sirens. I don’t know who this woman is, but I can see that she looks kind. She keeps telling me to stay awake, that help is on the way, and it starts to get colder. And I’m not ready for it. I haven’t brought a jacket. And I have to be home by 3. I promised my mom. I promised her I’d be home by 3. But I don’t know what time it is. And I don’t have a jacket.
And this is how I die.
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