“I said, whatch’a reading… faggot!”
Caleb doesn’t look up. He’s not sure why – they aren’t going to go away.
“What? You think I’m talking to someone else!?”
The voices come closer. He looks up from his book and pushes his glasses up his nose. No surprises in what he sees: Burke and Larry, the ringleaders; Edwards, Archer, Jake close behind. Hanging back, he sees Glen and Will – they haven’t quite earned their place in the group yet. Perhaps today’s their day… Caleb looks around, hoping a teacher will notice. Fat chance.
“Hey, gay-boy – do you even know what a fag is?”
Unbidden, the images that come to mind confirm for Caleb that he does, indeed, know what a fag is. He says nothing and glances at Glen who looks away and won’t meet his eyes. Caleb looks down again, past his book at his scuffed Oxfords. At the edge of his gaze, he can see a semi-circle of scuffed sneakers forming, shuffling into position, forming a fence topped by athletic socks peeking out from blue jean high-waters or tattered, too-long denim cuffs.
The bell rings. Time to go back in. 8th grade Honors American History.
It is a hot, hazy New England August day. The whir of crickets is practically the only noise to be heard anywhere, their sharp clicks measuring out the heat in case any one wasn’t already aware. After a day of biking through the woods and sandpits behind their houses, the two boys are too tired to do much of anything right now and have come back into Glen’s house for some lemonade. Glen suggests Legos, but Caleb shakes his head.
“Those are such little kid toys.”
Without saying anything, they both know that Star Wars will be deemed unacceptable for the same reason. Glen’s air gun was fun, but they used up the last of the BBs yesterday. His mom was home, so taking some of their (mostly Glen’s) firecracker stash back out to the sandpits was totally out of the question. They take their sweating glasses to Glen’s room, ice clinking as they walk. The put the lemonade on a TV tray along with some chocolate chip cookies and flop onto the bed.
The air is still and thick, barely pushed around by the fan in the window. After some minor quibbling over the merits of Iron Maiden over Black Sabbath, they compromise and listen to Def Leppard as loudly as they dare. Atari cartridges are piled around glow-in-the-dark movie monsters on the dresser; Dungeons and Dragons figures that they’ve painted stand watch. Caleb idly wonders what they’ll do next, and how many more summers they’ll have like this.
Now listen to me
I’m burnin’, burnin’, I got the fever
I know for sure, there ain’t no cure
So feel it, don’t fight it, go with the flow
Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme one more for the road
When the album ends, they lie still on the bed, listening to the hiss and pop of the vinyl on the turntable. The fan still whirs in the background, moving hot air in invisible and uncooling currents through the room.
“How’bout we go swimming?” suggests Glen, “My mom said we could if we wanted.”
“Cool.” Caleb swings off the bed and heads out of Glen’s house, the screen door slapping shut behind him. He runs down the hill and through the hayfield between their houses, tall late-summer timothy flicking at his legs. Once home, he grabs his bathing suit and a towel and runs back up the hill.
The pool is a dilapidated above-ground monstrosity with rickety railings and platforms. From their perspective, though, it was perfect. They spend an hour or more in the water, chasing one another around with tractor trailer inner tubes that Glen’s dad brought home from his garage, leaping from them onto one another. They wrestle, holding each other under the murky water until their lungs felt like they would burst, letting go before things get too frantic.
Skin wrinkled, goosebumps forming, enough is enough. They slosh out and grab their towels. The humid air is now neutral to cool against their skin, and Caleb shivers slightly.
“I know!” Glen says “To the fort!”
The ‘fort’ is in the loft of the barn behind Glen’s house. His older brother had built himself a hiding space long ago; now that he had moved out, it was all Glen’s. And, by virtue of being his best friend, Caleb’s as well.
The barn was an odd place – it was built out of cinderblock to be a garage, and a garage it was – but it was shaped like a classic barn, with a big gambrel roof and a hayloft that would never hold hay. On the ground floor, snowmobiles sat under tarps, waiting patiently for the winter. A partially disassembled ’57 Chevy pickup sat on risers, and a white ’62 Ford Falcon with a torn-up red vinyl interior decayed genteelly under a thick sediment of dust.
Keeping with the fake farm design, there were even a couple of stalls or stables that held tools and a workbench with all kinds of parts strewn across the surface. The loft had big doors at both the front and back – the front of the loft held stacks of tires, some lumber, and a couple of engines. You would have to be serious about it in order to make your way through that debris to get to the back of the loft. And so it was that the back of the loft held the fort.
They sprint across the grass and into the woods that border the yard, their feet summer-calloused enough to ignore the acorns and branches in their path. Behind the barn now, Glen grabs onto the rope ladder hanging down the wall and tugs on the rope that hangs next to it – a latch pops, and the loft door swings open. They climb the rope ladder nimbly, pulling themselves over the threshold; the ladder follows them in short order. They swing the door shut with a creak; there is an authoritative click, and they are safely inside.
Hurling their towels across the room, they flop into some decaying lawn chairs. The frayed nylon webbing groans under the stress, but they barely notice. The stale, hot air inside the barn smells of rust and mold, rubber and motor oil. Motes of dust dance in the shafts of light that stream through the cobweb-and-dirt-shrouded windows in the loft. For a couple of beats, everything is perfectly still.
“C’mere,” says Glen, “look what I found.”
He stands up and crosses the space to a small pile of crates in the corner. Caleb follows. Glen bends over, and from behind the crates pulls out what looks like an old wooden ammo box with rope handles. There is faded stenciling on the battered sides, but the letters are no longer legible. Glen sets it down with a theatrical flourish. “Ta-da”.
“Big freaking deal,” says Caleb, “a box.”
“Wait. Look inside“. And he throws open the lid.
Inside are porn magazines – not Playboy or Penthouse, but much harder stuff. They sit down next to one another and start flipping through, page after page of flesh doing pretty much everything that can be done to flesh, leaving nothing to the imagination.
“Where… where did you get these?”
“Rick left them when he moved out.”
They sit there, sweaty knee to sweaty knee, page after page. In the still air of the loft, the only sounds are flipping pages, and their increasingly belabored breathing. They look at one another, and quickly look away, back to the glossy pictures.
After a while, Caleb reaches out and touches his friend on the leg; Glen jumps slightly but doesn’t pull away. They slowly look at one another again, and they laugh, falling over themselves as they struggle to push off each other’s still-damp bathing suits. Free of them, they roll onto the towels, pushing the magazines aside in a crumpled pile, still laughing.
Caleb stands up, and without looking at any of them, pushes his way through and heads back to class. He can feel them turn and follow.
“Don’t ignore me, fag!”
Burke again. Caleb’s book falls to the ground, knocked from his hands. He doesn’t know who did it, but it really doesn’t matter.
“Hey, pussy – you dropped your faggy book. What kind of pussy reads this bullshit?” This from Larry this time, kicking the book across the pavement; paper rips as the book skitters away, leaving the cover sitting face-up on the sidewalk: The Wizard of Earthsea. Caleb snorts derisively, knowing that almost all of these boys are exactly the kinds of pussies who read this bullshit. He has traded books with them, played D&D with them, made sketches of dragons and barbarians and knights and ninjas with them instead of studying in the library. But no more; not this year; not since school started again. For whatever reason, things have changed; things have… soured.
Caleb keeps his mouth shut with some difficulty, biting sarcasm only held in check by the vision of the beating that will ensue if he can’t hold his tongue. Instead, he turns and bends over to pick up the book. Someone, he can’t tell who, pushes at him. It takes a lot of effort, but he doesn’t fall. The cover flutters away as he grabs the book. Straightening up again, he takes in the informal uniform of his adversaries: blue jeans, heavy metal T-shirts, sneakers, denim jackets. He contrasts this with his image of himself: button-down shirt, brown cords, green sweater, dress shoes.
Caleb is sure that he is the only one at school not wearing jeans. He isn’t sure how or even if jeans would help, but some small part of him thinks it would.
The denim-clad wolfpack follows Caleb into the school building and down the hall, still taunting. Where else would they go? Caleb thinks, We’re in the same classes… Despair fights with panic for control, but he keeps his mouth shut and walks on, hurrying slightly, heading for the relative safety of the classroom. They keep close, nipping and harrying. Too late, Caleb hears the rush towards him.
He turns to face his attacker, and his glasses fly across the hall as his face meets fist. Caleb staggers back, and sees blurrily that it was Will who threw the punch. It occurs to Caleb that today was initiation day after all. Time stretches as Caleb roars and leaps at his assailant, arms flailing. A shocked expression crosses Will’s face, and they collapse in a crash and tangle of bodies.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” A crowd starts to gather.
Caleb sees red-lit fragments, strobe-like impressions, bits and pieces of time amidst the roar of spectators hungry for blood. He no longer really knows what is happening. He is yelling, raging, sitting on Will’s chest, hands around his throat.
Caleb squeezes. Hard. He has no illusions about this – he wants Will dead. He squeezes harder, but the other boy just won’t die. In a full-fledged panic, Will scrabbles at Caleb’s hands but can’t break his grip. Caleb is still screaming incoherently; he lifts Will’s head up from the floor so he can smash it, into the linoleum, into the cinderblock wall, into the edge of the classroom door. He doesn’t care where, so long as the end result is a good, satisfying thump.
SMACK! Will’s head bounces off the floor. That’s more like it, thinks Caleb.
Will’s face is blue and turning to purple. Caleb lifts it up again, and is torn from Will’s chest by adult hands. Will breathes great, whooping, sucking breaths; pinkness returns to his face, and then both boys are sobbing.
Caleb shrugs away from the teacher who grabbed him; through his tears he find his glasses, the frame bent and cracked. The crowd of students is dispersing, still talking excitedly. Burke, Larry, and their minions hang back and watch as Will is half-carried to the front office.
As he is also led to the office, Caleb looks around. He doesn’t see Glen anywhere.
They don’t call Caleb ‘faggot’ anymore, but it doesn’t matter for very long. By Christmas, he knows he will be going to a prep school in the city where his mom works. After that, it doesn’t matter at all.
“Do you want me to get rid of those boxes?” asks his mother.
“The ones in the attic – stuff from your room, stuff from college. There’s too much crapola building up there, and I don’t want to end up like your great aunt, surrounded by piles of magazines and the crap from forty-five cats.”
Caleb snickers. No one in their family has ever been that bad, but he can see where she has a point.
“I’ll take a look.”
He spends the day up in the post-and-beam attic, piling boxes next to the massive central chimney. By the end of the day, he smells strongly of sweat and old book must with a faint overtone of mouse piss, but he’s pulled out all the stuff he thinks he wants. His eyes and arms itch, but it isn’t anything some Benadryl and a shower won’t fix. He heads on down the stairs, carrying two small moving boxes.
“Yeah, I think so. You can toss the rest, unless something catches your eye.”
On top of his pile of stuff is a coverless paperback.
“Your father wants some help – would you run to the hardware store with him?”
Against his better judgment, Caleb agrees.
Fortunately, his dad mostly keeps to himself as they drive over to the neighboring town; awkward attempts at small talk peter out as if they both realize that they will lead to fighting no matter the initial subject. They drive past hulking Victorian-era cotton mills and their attendant row houses. Caleb is slightly surprised by the number of high-tech companies in the old mills.
“Looks a lot better over here than it did not that long ago” he remarks.
That ends it. Just as well; they’re pulling into the lot of Aubuchon Hardware anyway. They get out of the pickup and go in. The list isn’t that long: some honey oak stain, foam brushes, sandpaper, steel wool. Caleb sighs. This wasn’t a request for help – this was a bonding attempt.
Okay. He can take it. He drives back first thing tomorrow morning, anyway.
They’ve got everything they need but there’s a line. One of the managers is trying to resolve a heated discussion between an employee and a customer; another employee is standing nearby, watching. The kid behind the register knows about half of what he should, and keeps looking anxiously over at the altercation, which is finally breaking up. The customer shakes his head and storms out, dropping his things to the floor dramatically.
The manager sighs and bends over with some difficulty to pick things up; his beer gut stretches against his workshirt, straining at the buttons. He straightens and turns, taking off his grease-stained trucker’s cap and running his fingers through his thinning curly hair, then rubbing at his bushy sideburns. Caleb starts – it’s Glen.
He looks about ten years older than me, Caleb thinks, and he’s put on a lot of weight. A pack of Marlboro 100s peeks over Glen’s breast pocket. He looks right through Caleb, not recognizing him, seeing only another customer, a long-haired tattooed punk completely out of place in this former mill town. Caleb can almost feel Glen thinking that it was only another hour until they closed and he could hit the package store for some beer on the way home if only these assholes would just get out of his store.
Back in the truck, Caleb can’t help but ask. “Was that Glen?”
“Ayup. Put on some weight, hasn’t he?”
“Yeah, I almost didn’t recognize him.”
“He’s living with his girlfriend in a trailer on her folks’ property. They’ve got three kids, another on the way. Don’t know how they do it, with him working this shitty job.” Caleb can’t tell if the disapproving inflection on ‘girlfriend’ is targeted at him or at Glen.
He doesn’t want to know.
The rest of the ride is silent. There isn’t really anything else to say.
Early May in New England was crisp and cool; back in DC, summer had started with a vengeance. As Caleb steps out of an ice cream shop in Dupont Circle, he hears a car stop behind him. A car door slams, and someone shouts “Hey, what are you, some kind of queer!?”.
Caleb’s wearing a faded “silence = death” T-shirt, and it occurs to him idly that the big pink triangle should make the question somewhat academic. The best way to survive an ambush is to charge through, so he does. “Yeah, so what if I am? What’s your fucking problem!?” He wheels about to face his assailant with an evil grin.
“You’re my fucking problem, fag!”
“Yeah, you fucking loser? You want some of this!?”
They close in, circling warily. Then they laugh and hug, and the tension in the air around them dissipates.
“Demitrius, you asshole. How’ve you been?” There is some nervous laughter from the steps of the nearby gay bookstore as the two men kiss.
Demitrius is grinning like a maniac, which Caleb already knows he is. Black, wild, bushy hair curls everywhere, and his eyes gleam blackly – he doesn’t look all that different from the psychedelic Cheshire cat on his T-shirt.
“Bored shitless. Get in the car, we’re getting some groceries. How was the trip back to your folks?”
“I’ll tell you about it later.” Caleb slides in the back seat of the car, and Demitrius’s girlfriend blows him a kiss. “Hey, Kate…”
Back at their apartment, Demitrius and Kate cook dinner while Caleb sprawls tiredly on their couch. What Demitrius had neglected to mention was the trunk full of IKEA furniture in the car that they’d borrowed from a friend. He’d also omitted the little detail that Caleb was expected to help carry the boxes up from the alley to the third floor apartment in the brownstone that Demitrius and Kate shared.
They carried box after box up, Demitrius providing this rambling monologue about the degeneracy of mall culture in Potomac Mills, Virginia, and how next time they’d drive up to Baltimore instead since the distance was about the same, and goddammit, after the revolution there would be no more bourgeois strongholds like Potomac Mills left standing, properly proletariat-conscious enterprises like IKEA excepted, and was Caleb in the mood for Italian because that was what he and Kate would be making, they’d found this great deal on some great red wine, and this morning a friend had dropped off some good bread and a baggie of pot, and for fuck’s sake, why was Caleb just standing there talking instead of carrying shit?
Pure Demitrius. But it is quiet now, except for chopping noises coming from the postage-stamp-sized galley and Kate and Demitrius bickering quietly. Adams Morgan’s street noises provide a soundtrack: Kurt Cobain against Chuck D., but neither can compete with the Dominican pop or the Jamaican dub. Still, for someone who’s been dead a month, Kurt holds his own respectably. Cars bump across potholes outside, and sirens wail. There is a slight breeze coming in through the open windows, but not much.
Caleb looks around the apartment, as familiar to him as his own: sandblasted brick, the arched windows, the framed exhibition posters, Klee and Kandinsky. In the landing at the top of the stairs leading out to the front of the townhome, a tattered Sandinista poster brandishes a stylized fist and AK-47 and extolls the virtues of revolution and sacrifice. He knows that down the hall, in front of the bathroom, there hangs a large banner with a silk-screened Venus symbol in purple: “Choice: No Compromises!” is emblazoned upon it. He knows that in their bedroom, mixed in with band posters and assorted announcements of rallies and protests is Demitrius’s Gadsden flag, yellow with rattlesnake: “Don’t Tread On Me”.
Caleb closes his eyes; he can picture the bookcase behind him: queer and feminist lit-crit, Leftist theory, science fiction, horror, beat poetry and novels, porn and erotica: Stephen King, William S. Burroughs, Kerouac, Paglia, Dworkin, Susie Bright, Anias Nin, James Joyce, Ginsberg, Zinn, Chomsky, Kropotkin, Poe, all rub elbows with some style guides, writer’s manuals, and a smattering of Web-related programming books. He sighs, opens his eyes, and stands, picking up his wineglass.
He’s a little drunk, but not very. He is, however, hot. The pedestal fan in the front of the living room, by the open windows, would probably have cooled the apartment off had they not been cooking.
Caleb sips some more wine, savoring the flavor and feel, berries and spice thick and oily on his tongue. He waves off the joint that Demitrius offers from the kitchen.
“Suit yourself – it’s good stuff.”
“I saw the bag; you’ve got more than enough.”
“No such thing, man!” Demitrius laughs and returns to his dicing.
Caleb shakes his head and heads down the hall, past the kitchen.
“You going out on the fire escape?” asked Kate.
“Yeah – I think there’s a breeze outside, but you’d never know it in here.”
“Join you in a couple of minutes,” she says, “once the lasagna goes in the oven.”
Caleb has to pass through Demitrius and Kate’s bedroom to get to the fire escape. The room smells faintly of patchouli, pot, and sex. Caleb smiled faintly; all three of them had slept with one another at one point or another, and if things went as he imagined they would, Caleb would wake up here in the morning, tangled up on the futon with them. They often joke about finding a slightly bigger apartment and all moving in together, but none of them really expects that to happen. Still, standing there in the darkened room, Caleb thinks about it somewhat wistfully now. Maybe tonight he’ll mention it again, a little more seriously this time. Winking at the rattlesnake on the wall, he slides the chain off the door, shoots the deadbolts, and steps outside onto the fire escape. A whiff of pot smoke follows him out and dissipates into the evening sky.
There is a breeze, after all. He sits down on the grubby air mattress that Demitrius and Kate keep out there and fishes around in the cargo pockets of his hacked-off BDU shorts. He pulls out a book, a coverless paperback, yellowed brittle paper smelling of mold and rodents. He flips it open, and reads from the beginning.
“Sir,” said the bronze-smith who would not let a great name daunt him, “my son will be thirteen this month coming, but we thought to hold his Passage at the feast of Sunreturn this winter.”
“Let him be named as soon as may be,” said the mage, “for he needs his name. I have other business now, but I will come back here for the day you choose. If you see fit, I will take him with me when I go thereafter. And if he prove apt, I will keep him as prentice, or see to it that he is schooled as fits his gifts. For to keep dark the mind of the mageborn, that is a dangerous thing.”
“I said, whatch’a reading… faggot!”
Lost in thought, Caleb starts at the intrusion, then smiles. “How long you been standing there?”
“Long enough” Demitrius saunters out onto the fire escape and plops down on the air mattress, apologizing as Caleb curses at the sloshing of wine that follows. “Sorry, Kate threw me out of the kitchen – she can’t stand the way I make a white sauce…” He pauses while Caleb settles back down.
“So, what are you reading?”
“Something I grabbed from my folks. Wizard of Earthsea.”
“Cool, I loved those books. Say, how was that trip.”
Caleb pauses and puts the book down. He takes another sip of wine.
“Eh. You know…”
Through the open door of the apartment, Tori Amos’ unearthly voice drifts from the CD player.
I’ve been looking for a savior in these dirty streets
looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets
I’ve been raising up my hands
Drive another nail in
They are sitting close now; Caleb can smell Demitrius’s sweat, feel the heat from his body. And without understanding entirely why, Caleb tells Demitrius the whole story: the trip, Glen, the book. The loft. The fight. By the end of the story, he is sobbing, Demitrius’s arms wrapped around him.
“I know, I know”, Demitrius whispers in his ear, his stubble rough on Caleb’s face. He kisses Caleb on the cheek, then on the lips. Caleb can taste salt, then garlic and wine on Demitrius’s tongue. Still crying, Caleb pulls Demitrius closer, drawing him deeper into his embrace.
“Should I come back?” Kate is in the doorway, holding a joint. The question is quiet, honest; no jealousy.
Demitrius and Caleb laugh.
“No”, says Caleb, sliding across the mattress to make more room. “Please”. He sniffles, and wipes at his eyes with the sleeve of his T-shirt. When Kate passes him her joint, he inhales deeply, savoring the herbal, ashy flavor, feeling the slow, pleasurable rush of the drug.
Exhaling slowly, Caleb starts over again from the beginning.