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Authors: William J. Mann

All American Boy

BOOK: All American Boy
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All American Boy

A Novel

William J. Mann

For Tim

1

BROWN'S MILL

His hands, as Wally remembers them, were like the gnarled, twisted fruit left behind on the trees when the apple-pickers were through.

Not like the hands of the boys he's watching now: soft hands, smooth, cupping each other's hard pink butts. They don't know Wally can see them. They think they're hidden among the trees, but Wally knows where to look, how to spy secrets in the shadows. He watches as the boys kiss, as they unbutton each other's shirts. He watches their faces, their tongues. But it's their
hands
that fascinate him most: hands so unlike the ones he remembers from this place, hands that remain forever twisted, forever beautiful, in his mind.

As a boy, Wally had loved this orchard, the sweet fragrance of the cider, the hard tartness of the apples. He remembers the way the juice would spit in his face when he took his first bite, how Zandy would laugh, apple juice dripping from Wally's chin. Here, in the shadows of the apple trees, they would make love, Zandy's gnarled hands splayed against Wally's smooth young skin.

So it is still a place of sex
, Wally thinks as he spies on the boys. They're exquisite. Nothing about them reminds Wally of the boys of the city, the ones who have traipsed through his bedroom these last few years, hard-edged children with ambition and presumption. So unlike these boys here, making love in the woods. These are simple boys, the milk under the cream, boys who will remain in Brown's Mill all their lives, indifferent to the flash and lure of the city. Wally might have been like them, had it not been for Zandy.

His breath is steaming the window. The show is almost over now: one of the boys drops to his knees and fills his mouth with cock. It doesn't take long. The standing boy ejaculates, the other swallows, and then they both stumble out from the bushes. Wally watches as they mount their respective bicycles and pedal off in opposite directions. Somewhere in the orchard a crow lets out a long and scandalized cry.

Wally rolls down his window and takes time to breathe. The autumn air is sharp in his nostrils, sharp and cold, sharp and clear, sharp and blue, very blue, the hard blue of a cloudless sky. He looks out into the orchard. By now its apples have been packed into crates and shipped into stores, baked into pies and dropped into lunch bags. All gone, except for the few twisted ones left behind on the branches, tiny deformed babies that cling desperately to the cold limbs, ugly stepchildren who have aged too quickly, abandoned by their beautiful brethren, picked over and left to rot.

Would you come home, Walter? Please?

It's time to go. He didn't come back to Brown's Mill to spy on boys making love in the woods. He came here because his mother had asked him to. That she would make the request remains surprising enough. The fact that Wally agreed, however, is by far the bigger surprise.

Given what had happened.

Here, in the orchard.

All those years ago.

“Would you come home, Walter? I—I don't know what's happening to me.”

They hadn't spoken in four years. Hadn't
seen
each other in over a decade, since Wally left Brown's Mill for college in the city. His mother's call had cut through a rare lazy Tuesday morning free of auditions or casting calls. Wally had had hopes of sleeping in, of taking the day off, but the shriek of the telephone shot through his morning at a little past eight. He'd been awake, but in that dreamy place between night and day, between oblivion and consciousness, sporting an impressive morning bone and contemplating vaguely what to do about it. That's when the shrill ring of the phone shattered his mood. And his morning. And the rest of his day.

“Please, Walter? I don't know what else to do.”

He closed his eyes. “Are you still seeing Doctor Fitzgerald?”

“No, no, no, he died, Walter. Years ago.”

“Then you need to find a new doctor, Mom. I can't do anything for you.”

“But, Walter, I—I think I may be losing my mind.”

Wally resisted the temptation to tell his mother that that had already occurred many years ago. How else to explain everything she'd done—or
hadn't
done?

“Please, Walter?”

He finally lied and told her he'd come, just so he could get her off the phone and out of his life, but his hard-on was gone and the morning already felt different. He threw off the sheets and got out of bed.

That's when he got the second call. From Officer Sebastian Garafolo of the Brown's Mill police department.

Egg salad in his walrus mustache. That's the image the voice brought back after so many years. Egg salad in his mustache, and on the collar of his blue shirt, and his breath was reeking when Wally walked into the station and admitted that yes, he'd had sex with Alexander Reefy in the orchard.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Since I was thirteen,” Wally said, and then, without any hesitation, without any compunction, signed his name to the complaint.

“I'm looking for your cousin Kyle. Do you know where he is?”

Over the phone, Garafolo's voice sounded exactly the same as it had twenty years ago. Wally imagined he was sitting at the exact same desk, still eating egg salad and wearing the same stained blue shirt.

“Why would I know where Kyle is?” Wally could feel the irritation tighten his throat. First his mother's call. Now this even more egregious reminder of a past he tried to forget. “I haven't seen Kyle in years. Why would you call
me
?”

“Well, your mother reported him missing.”

“My mother?”

“He was living with her. You didn't know that?”

“No.”

There was no reclaiming the day now. Wally might just as well have gone back to bed after Officer Garafolo and his smelly egg salad breath had been thrust back into his life. But he pulled on his sweatpants, intending to take a run in the park. Yet by the time he got down to the street, it had started to rain.

Once past the orchard hills, the road winds its way back down into the town. From here Wally can see the brownstone spire of St. John the Baptist, the red brick of the old factories, the swampy blackness of Dogtown. On a sweltering summer day a little over three decades ago, Wally was born down there, almost killing his mother in the process. Nineteen hours, she was in labor with him. Finally they had to knock her out and cut her open. The neighbors clucked that she was too old to have a baby, too frail. She should never have tried it. Remember what happened to her sister, they said. Those Gunderson girls weren't built for babies.

Wally drives into town. He knows these streets, these alleyways, crosshatching through the meadow and ending at the river. He knows the big white houses on top of the hill and he knows the shacks down in Dogtown, where the river floods every spring. He knows the places where kids hide so their parents won't catch them smoking pot or drinking Jack Daniels or sucking boys' cocks. He knows who walks these streets, who comes out by day and who by night. Brown's Mill hasn't changed. He can see that all too clearly. The world changes but Brown's Mill goes on, always the same, no matter the factories closing or the scandals of an All American Boy.

Wally Day, I know what you done
, Kyle had taunted him.
I know it was you that sent that perv to jail
.

Yes, he had known, and so had the whole town. But Wally knew a few things, too. When Wally lived in Brown's Mill, back in another time, he knew everything there was to know. He would listen to his mother on the telephone sharing stories with the ladies from the church. He knew about the long, drawn-out saga of Gladys Millstein, who broke up the fifteen-year marriage of Ted and Jeanette McCarthy. He knew all about poor Dicky Trout, the TV repairman, who was turning into an alcoholic in front of their very eyes. He knew about Mr. Rogers, the guy at the bank in the pinstriped suit who cooked the books for old Mayor Winslow for so long, then opened up a bookie joint in the back of Floyd's Barber Shop.

For his entire sixteen years in this town, Wally knew all of its secrets. He'd listen to the clerks at the A&P, to the waitresses at Henry's Diner, to the old men on the steps of the post office who lamented the loss of the great factories even before Wally was born, rotting old husks of iron and brick that lined the swamps of Dogtown. Wally listened, and he watched. Watched old Mr. Smoke steal a pack of cigarettes at South End News. Watched Ann Marie Adorno make out with Phillip Stueckel in the choir loft, her big pimply tits heaving. Watched Freddie Piatrowski's father beat off in his basement to a greasy pile of
Penthouse
magazines. Watched Miss Aletha take off her wig when she thought she was alone. Watched, listened, without ever being seen, without ever being heard.

“You're not really going back there, are you?”

His friend Cheri had been unbelieving.

“My mother is a wreck,” he told her. “This time she may really be going over the edge.”

“So what are you going to do, have her committed?”

He laughed. “Maybe.”

“What about—?”

“What about what?”

“Him.”

“Zandy?”

Cheri nodded.

Wally sighed. “I don't even know if he's still alive.”

He loves Cheri. Had he been straight—yeah, yeah, Cheri would say, she's heard that a million times. But it's true. Since Ned's death, Cheri's been the closest person in the world to him. They met on Wally's first day in the city seventeen years ago, when both were still bright-eyed teenagers, convinced they'd be famous by the time they were twenty. It was Wally's very first casting call, and he and Cheri both won small parts in the chorus of an off-Broadway revue that was supposed to be a smash but ended after six nights. Still, therein was born a friendship that has endured, and which Wally credits with keeping him alive.

So of course he told Cheri about Zandy. He told her about the sex in the orchard and the confession to Officer Garafolo. He told her how he'd rewarded the first man who'd ever loved him with a stretch in jail, and how that memory has dragged behind him for two decades, a broken slab of concrete tied around his neck.

“You want to see him,” Cheri said. “That's why you're going home. It's not your mother.”

Wally laughed. “No, it's my mother. Underneath it all, it's always my mother.”

So they went dancing, a little dose of gaiety to hold Wally over during his journey back to the past. One too many cosmopolitans, with Wally waking up this morning with a headache and a major case of dry mouth. But it was worth it: to dance, to cruise, to laugh. How long had it been?

“Why don't we do this more often?” Cheri asked him.

“All right. Every Tuesday night then.”

“I have psych drama class Tuesday nights.”

“So Thursday nights then. No wait. I bowl on Thursday night.”

“Well, it can't be Wednesday, either,” Cheri said, “because I'm starting Pilates.”

Wally just laughed and lifted her into the air. John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney in
Saturday Night Fever
.

The movie that had made Wally gay.

On the corner of Pearl and Washington streets, he passes the Piatrowski house. From their name on the mailbox, Wally deduces the family still lives there. Mr. and Mrs. and probably still Helen, too—but Freddie's sure to have moved on by now, married probably, divorced most likely, with a handful of kids. The big yellow Victorian still gives Wally the jitters. In an upper room lived Freddie's big-faced retarded sister Helen, who was always screaming. When Wally was very young and Freddie was his best friend, he sometimes slept over at the Piatrowskis, lying awake and listening to Helen scream. Her family would go on as if nothing were out of the ordinary, but Helen's screams unnerved Wally for weeks—for all of his childhood, in fact, he thinks now. Even in his own bed back at home, he'd be convinced he could hear her still.

BOOK: All American Boy
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