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Authors: Beth Nugent

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BOOK: City of Boys
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As I watch a squirrel run up a tree, my uncle’s big laugh comes right in my ear.

—What is that damn squirrel up to anyway? he asks, and suddenly his huge hand comes down on my shoulder. It is like a cement glove, pressing me into the ground and already I have begun to sweat, which Mother warned me against. While this is not something I remember my doctor mentioning, and I’m not entirely sure it’s not something my mother made up, since she herself doesn’t care for the heat, all the same, I try to stay out of the sun, and the thin trickle of sweat running down my ribs feels alarming and cold.

—Candy, Susie?

When I look up at him, he smiles. I come only to his chest, and I can hear a slight wheeze as he breathes. He holds out his fist and opens it to show me several candy corns, pressed together into a waxy little lump.

—No thank you, Uncle Woody.

—Oh, he says. —You take them. You’re a skinny little thing.

He dislodges a few candy corns from the lump in his hand and drops them into mine, then presses my fingers closed over them; the candies are warm and slick and I drop them
on the grass. Uncle Woody laughs, then opens his mouth wide and pops his hand over it, throwing the lump of candy in. He winks at me as he chews, and wanders back to the house, shaking his head. I can see him through the windows, moving from the kitchen to the living room, where my father is already watching the doubleheader between Cincinnati and Chicago.

I am in the bathroom taking inventory. Cheekbones: flat; chin: receding; hair: thin; breasts: the same; appearance: problematic.

I have borrowed a few of Francine’s cosmetics, and they are spread out on the sink in front of me when she comes in without knocking, wearing a fluffy pink robe. She looks at the makeup on the sink and I begin to offer some explanation, but she moves past me and turns on the water in the bathtub. From the pocket of her robe she takes a little bottle, which she opens and smells; then she pours some of the liquid under the running water. Bright bubbles burst up immediately in the tub, and she smiles as she turns to me. —Bath oil, she says. —It makes your skin silky and smooth to the touch.

Who is going to touch you, Francine? I think. She lowers herself into the tub and sighs.

Who? I think, and then I say it: —Who?

—What? she says. She lifts a palmful of bubbles to her face and blows them into the air. —I’ve got a date tonight, she says.

I am mystified. How could she have a date? There are no boys. I look casually into the mirror.

—Oh? I say. —Who with?

—A boy, she says. —A boy I met at the carnival last night. Last night, I think, and run over the evening in my mind. She must have met the boy when my uncle and I were on
the Ferris wheel, or when my uncle was throwing rubber balls at the clown, or when my uncle was buying me candy. —Where are you going? I ask.

—We’re meeting at the carnival, she says, waving her hand over the tops of the hills of bubbles that surround her breasts. I imagine them high up over the lights of the mall parking lot, swaying in the Ferris wheel’s artificial ecstasy, an enormous pink fluff of cotton candy in Francine’s arms, the boy’s hand under her sweater, holding the soft candy of her breast.

We all stand around the front door as Uncle Woody prepares to drive Francine to the carnival. My aunt reaches out with a Kleenex to blot away a little smear of lipstick from Francine’s chin.

—Don’t you want to go, too, Susie? my uncle asks. —You don’t want to stay in all night with us old folks.

—I don’t feel well, I tell him. —I’ll just read.

—If you want, he says, —we can go to a movie. Just you and me. Like a regular date. I’ll buy you popcorn and we can sit in the back row and watch the smoochers.

—Woody, my aunt says, —Francine’s going to be late.

Francine turns at the door and tosses me a smile. —I’ll see if he has any friends, she says.

Aunt Louise watches them walk out to the car and my father goes back to the living room. I realize that my mother has not been standing with us; she is in the basement, perhaps, or on the patio. When the car pulls out, Aunt Louise turns happily to me.

—Francine is very popular, she says. —Wherever she goes, she seems to make new friends.

I nod, and try to think of something to say, but she turns her head sharply at the suck of the freezer door opening, and heads off toward the sound of an ice tray cracking.

* * *

My father stands by the television, tapping absently against the screen. He is torn: either he can watch the game between L.A. and Cincinnati or he can watch the game between Cleveland and Detroit. He looks out the window at the final stretch of evening sun over the grape arbor and wipes his fingers delicately against the front of his shirt, then selects a few candy corns from the bowl on top of the television, put there by my uncle to lure me to the flickering screen while he waits alertly in the shadows. My father finally chooses his game and sits unhappily to watch it, thinking only of the game he is missing, though before long he will be asleep.

Traveling through the house and into my bedroom, the baseball announcer’s voice is reassuring: summer, father, home, it says, and its insistent rise and fall blends with the murmur of the locusts. My father lies on the couch, dozing or dreaming, his drink propped on his chest, while beside him Aunt Louise runs her hand over some model in
, thinking: I want this, I want this. My mother and my uncle are gone, pursued or pursuing under the dark trees, and somewhere some boy’s narrow palm strolls over Francine, charmed by the give of her skin, the resistance of her nipple. Surprised and delighted, he strokes her in the moonlight somewhere. There is no light here but the blue light of the TV and no sound but the sound my uncle does not make, creeping from door to door, the sound not made by the squeaking of his shoes, the protest of his bones.

I go to bed before Francine returns, and when I wake up later, I don’t know if she’s back yet, but my uncle’s shape is dim in the moonlight that comes through my window, and his heavy bulk causes my bed to creak dangerously. The wooden slats underneath are mismatched, and sometimes
they slip from the frame, the mattress collapsing right through to the floor.

—Susie, he says. —Susie. He shakes my shoulder. —Susie, wake up.

I feign drowsy confusion and turn away, but he puts his hand on my forehead, turning my face back to him.

—Susie, he says. —I want to tell you a bedtime story. Which one’s your favorite?

He brings his face close to mine and shakes my shoulder again. —Which one? he says. —Which one?

He smells of gin, which is what they all drink, and cigarettes, and something else–a sweet, dark, excited smell. I keep my eyes closed. I cannot remember any story except this one.

—Suuusie, he says, his voice rising and falling as if he is calling me from a long distance, and I open my eyes. He smiles. —I knew you were awake, he says.

—I’m tired, Uncle Woody. I want to go to sleep.

—Let me tell you a story first. Look. I brought you some candy.

He opens his hand above me and scatters candy corns on the sheet over my stomach, my breasts.

—I’m sick, I say. —I have to go to the bathroom.

He lies down beside me, pressing himself into the narrow space between my body and the edge of the bed.

—Once upon a time, he begins, —there was a little girl. He moves the hair gently from my face and sighs happily, his breath wet and heavy.

—I’m sick, I say again, and struggle against the sheets to sit.

—Wait, he whispers, and reaches out. —Wait, and then the bed breaks and I am out of it.

* * *

Under the bright lights, against the white tile of the bathroom, this is all a dream. The face that stares back at me in the mirror is dreaming. When I come back to my room, everything is as it was before: the bed is neatly on its frame, the candy gone. This is a dream, and I will forget it by morning. In the moment before I fall back asleep, I realize that I have forgotten to check for Francine, but then I remember that this is a dream.

In the morning, all is as usual, and when my English muffin pops up, my aunt hands me the butter.

—Woody says he scared you last night, she says, turning to put another muffin in the toaster.

I carry the butter to the table with my muffin. —Scared me? —He said he had too much to drink and came into your room by mistake.

She watches me carefully as I spread butter on my muffin. —Oh, I say. —I wasn’t scared.

I sit at the table, by the window; outside, my uncle and my father are walking around the yard, examining the bushes carefully. When he sees me watching them, my Uncle Woody waves cheerily and my father looks around to see what he is waving at. A locust hums suddenly past the window, like a tiny dense bird. Somewhere, I’ve heard, they eat them, fry them up and eat them, a delicacy, like caviar or oysters. My father and Uncle Woody continue their walk around the yard, occasionally plucking locust shells from the leaves.

—Disgusting, my aunt hisses, —disgusting. Her voice cuts through the night like a line of fire burning all that is in its path, straight to my ears. —You’re a disgusting fool, she says, —and don’t you think everyone can’t see it.

Francine sleeps, or pretends to, though I can hear my aunt’s voice clearly, and does not stir when I get up to go to the bathroom. I walk without sound, counting my breaths with each step.

—Listen to me, she says. —You goddamn fool.

I imagine my uncle, next to her in the bed, his jaw working. —Listen, she says again, and then there is the slap of her palm against his skin, a hideous hurting sound in the night. —You listen to me.

He must be awake, his skin stinging, staring into the night, surrounded by nothing but her voice. Someday he will kill her. He will come upon her in the laundry room when she thinks he is watching television, and he will creep up on her in his foam soles and bury her face in the soft sweet-smelling sheets she piles up against tomorrow. He will bury her face in the sheets and he will bury her body in the garden and then he will come upon me like rain. Candy, Susie, candy, he’ll say, and I’ll come running.

I put my hands over my ears, but Aunt Louise’s voice filters through my fingers like smoke, like light through the leaves. —Disgusting, she says, —disgusting.

My mother is thirty-six years old today. I was born when she was twenty; she has had me all those years. Since she was twenty, there has been me. In four years I will be twenty. For her birthday today, there will be a small dinner with the family and a few of my parents’ friends. Uncle Woody has got several bottles of champagne and a big net to play volleyball, or badminton. Carol comes first, early in the day, to help with the dinner. She brings a small present, wrapped in bright blue paper, and a bouquet of flowers, blazing orange and white, like an armful of fire. As Aunt Louise runs for a vase, Carol gives a small flower to me, and the largest
and most beautiful flower she puts behind my mother’s ear, a flame in her hair.

—There, she says, —now you look like a birthday girl.

My mother almost smiles as she touches the flower, and Carol looks away to where my father and Francine are struggling to put up the net in the back yard. Aunt Louise returns with the flowers in a vase and looks at the flower in my mother’s hair.

—Don’t you think you’d better put that one in the water, too? she says, and my mother removes the flower and gives it to her. I tuck mine into my top buttonhole.

—Susan, Carol calls from the window. —Come here. Look. She points to the leaves of a bush that rests against the glass and shows me a large locust, stuck to the leaf with a gummy liquid that comes from its body. It struggles to free itself, but each time one leg comes loose, the locust must put it back down to work loose the other, and so imprisons itself again.

—That means they’re going to die soon, Carol says. She smiles. —I’ll sort of miss them. I’ve gotten used to the racket. Imagine how quiet it will be with them gone. We’ll be able to hear ourselves think again.

—Well, Aunt Louise says, —that will be a nice change for all of you. She smiles pleasantly as she carries the vase of flowers into the dining room.

I am standing in front of the kitchen window, chopping for the birthday dinner, cutting up carrots and onions and peppers, which will go into the sauce for the lamb, my mother’s favorite. Late-afternoon sun glitters from the knife, and I concentrate on the play of my fingers and the blade, my hand moving steadily back along the spine of a carrot, the knife relentlessly pursuing. Everyone has left the house.
Francine and Aunt Louise are picking up the birthday cake; Uncle Woody and my father have gone to buy the portable trash masher that will be the family’s gift to my mother; my mother and Carol are in the back yard picking grapes, perhaps the last of the season that the locusts will not eat.

I am wondering if, right now, picking up the cake at the bakery, Francine is making new friends, meeting boys who want to date her, and I look up out of the window to see my mother and Carol standing together under the grape arbor; the leaves are still damp from an early shower and they shine in the bright sun as Carol gropes through them looking for grapes. She plucks one out and holds it up, then drops it into the blue-and-white bowl my mother holds. Something she says makes my mother smile—just for a moment, but before the smile is gone, Carol takes my mother’s face in her hands and holds it to her own. My mother’s face disappears as I watch them kiss under the damp leaves, the grapes hanging above them like ripe flies. The bowl falls from my mother’s arms and lands on its side; grapes tumble out over the grass, and as Carol and my mother move together, a shower of rain from the leaves comes down over their heads. Rings are growing around this moment, this sky, this sun, racing over the damp leaves like tiny bullets of light, dazzling my eyes. Uncle Woody will come upon me now like a storm. The sun fades suddenly, blotted out by a cloud, and I look away, back to the counter. Around my hands vegetables lie like piled-up dead. I am amazed I have not cut myself. When I look back at the grape arbor, Carol and my mother are gone; the bowl is no longer on the ground.

BOOK: City of Boys
13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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