Visual art by John Timothy Robinson
Jess has a way with guys. She talks in ways guys get. I never thought we’d chill. Never thought I was cool enough. Then one day I come out to the big log by the quarry and she’s smoking like she’s here every day. I stopped thinking she’s using me for my parent’s bud. Dunno why else she’s hanging with me, what’s in it for her. I’m already telling her about my dream. It’s messed me up. I’m lying naked in bed and these big-ass scissors come out of nowhere and open up around my junk and lop it off. It doesn’t hurt, I tell her, and there’s no blood, which is weird cuz I know there’d be mad amounts of blood. Not surprised, says Jess, little freak like you having dreams about cutting off your pud. We’re whittling birch with our new bowies. Jess bought them from Jake. He sells shit like that. Jake was gonna overcharge her but Jess knows how to handle him.
I’d do it for ‘ya, says Jess.
No fucking way.
I would, you’d be better without it.
Fuck. How would I piss?
Like I do. But that’s something you have to be really totally sure about cuz that shit ain’t coming back. It’s not like you’re gonna find it rolling around in a drawer some day.
That night I’m in my sleeping bag under my bed pulling one out and thinking about my junk rolling around in a drawer. I can’t get hard, it’s getting all chewed up, but I can’t stop so long’s my dad’s beating the shit outta my mom and all that racket’s going on downstairs. I just jerk till it’s over. And Hamlet’s staring at me from my desk. Totally didn’t read that. Makes me wanna wank even harder till I fall asleep to the sound of crashing.
Jake’s in the courtyard before first period when we go out to smoke.
Knife your family down yet Chilton?
You’d knife your family down if they criticized your hair, says Jess.
Nah, I’d just renounce Jesus. This guy here? Bowie in his pocket? It’s probably the biggest thing he’s ever had in his pants.
I tell him to fuck off.
Oh, look at you, little man…got your tongue back. You wanna keep that bowie or what?
We paid for them, they’re ours, says Jess.
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
So take them, I don’t care, says Jess.
Jake laughs. Girl, I like you. You’re fierce. My hair, huh? Fuck, girl, you’re too much. Keep your fucking knives. What do I care? He points to me. This one, though? Total serial killer material. Jeffrey Dahmer style.
After the bell rings Jess whispers in my ear. Guy with no dick.
In English Mr. Matthews calls on me and asks about some character peeking behind a curtain. God? I says. Cuz God’s always peeking at you from behind something. That got a good laugh. After class Mr. Matthews sits on the desk in front of me like he’s modeling or something.
Chilton, he says, what do you like to do? I shrug. You mean for fun? I ask. He shrugs. Yeah, he says. It was kind of a funny question but I tell him I really like the outdoors. Just saw a documentary about park rangers and I liked that. He said that’s great. Nature is great. Park rangers are great. And I guess he’s done saying how great everything is cuz next he says, you know, there’s some pretty tough tests park rangers have to take to become park rangers. You’re going to have to be able to read and write well and become familiar with park ranger rules and regulations. And that’s why I have to read Hamlet, I says? Yeah, he says. I say OK, but I don’t understand a word of it. He says it doesn’t matter, gotta read it anyway, gotta try. And he would help, cuz someday I’m gonna be a park ranger.
I left feeling kinda weird, like he didn’t really punish me but he kinda did. He got my mind going and once it gets going it doesn’t stop. It goes on and on about being a park ranger, how I could get out of the house cuz I’d be making a legitimate living park rangering and I could go to the big log with Jess and smoke joints and suck the mint from birch and we could see how far we could throw bottles where the water gets all dark and shadowy near the cliffs and. That made me happy even if I wasn’t ever gonna read Hamlet and that afternoon kicked him into the quarry and that’s where Hamlet lives now, at the bottom of the quarry. I skipped out on Mr. Matthew’s class anyhow and pretty soon skipped out on all of my classes and started going down to the big log full of thoughts about being a park ranger. Hell, maybe this was all I needed to be a park ranger, just ranging the park, not that I know what park ranging is, but this sure feels like it and that’s good enough for me.
Jess didn’t agree. She told me off cuz I don’t care about skipping out on class and I guess Jess is more responsible than I am. We’re out by the big log whittling birch with our bowies and I said she’s right. I don’t care. I don’t have a problem not caring. I’m not sure why people go around caring. Mr. Matthews didn’t care about me reading Hamlet or being a park ranger. I have to read Hamlet cuz that’s his job. Assistant Manager of Getting Kids to Read Hamlet. That kind of thing. He probably gets paid pretty good for that job and lives in a cushy part of town with the wife and kiddies and a trampoline out back with the kiddies bouncing up and down and I wonder how they keep from puking cuz I’d sure as hell puke the way they bounce and I think those are some pretty sturdy non-puking kiddies Mr. Matthew’s got.
Chilton, you gotta go back to class, it’s important.
You just gotta.
I don’t gotta.
You do gotta.
Why do you care?
Cuz I’m your friend?
Yeah, why is that? Why are you my friend?
She says I’m being a total smeg-head and I say I know I’m being a total smeg-head, and I hold up my bowie.
One-hundred points, I says.
We’d started throwing our bowies with different points for all sorts of stuff, distance, trees, animals, but we didn’t come close to hitting an animal or even a tree and I almost lost mine down a gulley in the distance contest and it took an hour to find it cuz it got buried under a pile of leaves.
Don’t even joke about that, Chilton. I’ll tell Jake he’s right about you being a psycho and I don’t believe that.
I said I bet she would and call her a cunt.
What the fuck did you say? Don’t you call me that!
Little fucking hairy cunt, I say, and throw down my bowie. I thought it was a joke, it was supposed to be a joke, but the moment it left my hand I knew it wasn’t funny. Maybe cuz it stuck in the ground inches from her leg. Under the right circumstance I could see how it could be funny but she’s looking at it with this surprised face that scares the shit outta me and I don’t wanna think about that anymore. Then she’s up and swiping me with her foot and I go over and she’s got my knife down there against my junk and her face is in my face and I’m freaking out. You want it gone you little shit? I’ll do it, I’ll cut it off! I’m flailing and kicking and screaming and scrambling and everything’s a blur and next I know I’m up against a tree hugging my knees and shaking and I can’t control it and I’m worried way in the back of my head maybe I hurt Jess and don’t remember but she’s there on her hands and knees huffing and puffing and I can tell she’s not hurt but she’s not gonna come after me with that bowie again, not anymore.
Chilton, calm down, OK? I wasn’t actually gonna do it.
I felt better with my arms around my knees. I rock back and forth and that felt good.
You can’t do that, you can’t touch me, I says.
I didn’t know. I’m sorry.
She sits next to me against the tree. We stay there awhile and don’t say anything and my breathing starts to go back to normal. As we walk out of the quarry Jess holds up my bowie and says, but this? You can’t do this anymore. I know, I say. But I can’t help it. Try, she says, and hands it back.
I stopped throwing my bowie but kept playing hooky. Mostly I biked to the mall and wandered around and got myself a Mister Chips from the money I swiped from my father’s stash and one day I decided to go to the bookstore and asked the bookstore guy if they had any park ranger books.
You mean like nature books? he asks, squinting at me.
He was this old guy with a red and white bowtie.
I guess so.
Over there, he says.
I went in back and found the nature books and started flipping through some but they were mostly about animals or just had words and no pictures or just a few stupid black and white ones in this little section in the middle. Then I found one that was pretty thin and had lots of big shiny pictures of mountains and lakes with the moon reflected in them and animals looking out with these big eyes like they were surprised. “America’s National Treasures.” Thirty-five dollars. I had forty-two left from my dad’s stash so I slapped it down and sat on a bench outside and flipped through it and then flipped back and then started again. The pictures didn’t look real. They were from places like Arizona, California, New Mexico, and someplace called the Grand Tetons, which would usually make me laugh but not this time. If this guy on the back cover with a beard and glasses went and took pictures of them then why couldn’t I? Then there’s Mr. Matthews and his wife and the trampoline kiddies in my head. Maybe this guy with the beard and glasses read Hamlet and that got him the job. How the hell was I supposed to get to these places with Hamlet at the bottom of the quarry and only a few bucks of my dad’s money in my pocket? So I roll up the book and stuff it in my waistband and hop on my bike and head out to the big log and stand at the quarry edge like I’m gonna kick “America’s National Treasures” out there with Hamlet but something stops me. I don’t know why. Maybe cuz it was so thin it would have just flopped around in the air and got hung up on a branch anyway. So I sat and dropped rocks in the water and watched the circles crash into each other and then texted Jess.
Come on, pleeeeeese?
- Have to get new bra. Titties getting bigger.
Can you handle it?
OK, mall then quarry.
On my way home my bike chain got all chewed up cuz it’s a terrible bike I found unlocked by the mall one day, like whoever it was wanted to get rid of it so I helped them. I bring it in and park it in the driveway and go to the garage to get a wrench. The door’s open and it’s dark in back and I’m only halfway in when I know he’s there.
Hey bud, what’s up? he says.
Looking for the wrench, I say.
He and my mom must have gotten into a fight cuz that’s where he goes when they fight. He slinks off and smokes in the back of the garage till it all blows over. He lifts his cigarette up to his face and he’s all shaky like a stray cat I found by the river once, all wet and wobbly like you could push it over with a stick. He’s not drunk or high yet but I wish he was. He doesn’t give a shit about me when he’s high, but when he’s sober he gets all curious and asks lots of questions, I dunno why. When I say I need the wrench he puts his hand up like I got this. He goes searching for it and it’s like he’s never been back there before, just winging it, flipping latches, opening and closing drawers. He drops the cigarette and goes to get it and pops up all flustered.
What the hell you need a wrench for anyway?
That box, I say, pointing.
He opens the box and takes the wrench out. But instead of giving it to me he holds onto it like maybe he’ll give it to me, maybe he won’t and I can see he sees the book. What’s that? I pull it out and hand it to him. He flips through it. You steal this? I said I didn’t. You bought it? I said I didn’t. Well if you didn’t steal it and you didn’t buy it where’d you get it? I said it was a present. Who’s giving you presents? I tell him they were cleaning out old books at school and giving them away. “America’s National Treasures,” he says and laughs. Thinking of getting rich treasure hunting? I’m about to say something but think the better of it, so I just say, yeah sure. Then he says, nah, you didn’t get this from school. Still got a price sticker on the back, see? Wheeler’s Books. You swiped it. And all I can think is how I bought the book with his money only he doesn’t know it and that makes me kinda sad. So it’s not yours, he says. He looks at me like he’s said something big and meaningful but I don’t know what it is. He’s holding the book out for me to take it but I guess I’m a little slow cuz he starts shaking it at me. C’mon, I’m giving it to you. I take it and I’m turning to go and he says, Yo, yo, yo, what about this? He holds out the wrench. Only he’s not really holding it out cuz I have to step in to reach for it and he’s looking at me like I should be laughing or something, like there’s something funny going on but I don’t know what it is and I leave with this swirly feeling in my head and an ache in my gut like maybe I have to take a shit.
I spend as much time fixing my bike as possible, go real slow, test it and test it. Maybe the sun will set, maybe the stars will come out, maybe morning will come, but only an hour passes and finally I have to go in, so I start up the stairs and that’s when I hear my mom calling my dad’s name from the living room.
No mom, it’s me, I says.
I wait on the landing, then backtrack down the steps and go in. She’s on the couch by the window wrapped up in that nappy old piss-stain blanket of hers. She turns and stares at me like she can’t tell if I’m there or not, like maybe she’s imagining me or maybe I said something and maybe it was a question and maybe she’d have to put her hands up to defend herself or maybe she’s just gonna sit there and look all tweaked out like she does.
Her black eye’s gone green.
Chit, she says.
It sounds like shit.
Chit, let me see you.
I go to her and she sits up and puts her hands in my hair and messes it all up and looks at me like she’s never seen me before. She does this a lot. Dunno why.
You’re such a good boy. Look at you. Such a handsome boy.
She leans into me and puts her head on my shoulder and I know that’s it, that’s what she does before she asks me to do something.
Chit, can you be a sweetheart and get your daddy for me?
Sure, I say, and head out like I’m gonna get him but turn upstairs instead and go up to my room and pull out my sleeping bag and get under my bed and stay there looking through my book till morning.
I leave before they’re up. I got loads of time to kill before meeting Jess at the mall so I bike to the Sunrise neighborhood cuz it’s a good place to bike, all nice and flat with one-level ranches small and close together and before you know it you’re lost cuz everything looks the same and blends together. I circle all five blocks I don’t know how many times, just go round and round and “America’s National Treasures” is cutting into my back where I stuck it in my waistband. If I could live on my bike and never get off I would cuz you’re never in one place at one time and no one can come up to you and give you shit cuz you can just bike off and feel pretty good about it. That’s when I’m coming around a corner thinking about that and someone’s backing out a front door and right off the bat I know it’s Mr. Matthews. I thought he’d be somewhere fancier, a trampolining neighborhood, but here he is with some woman following him wearing these big-ass glasses and she’s kinda fat and I’m guessing it’s his girl. They’re dressed like they’re going to church or something and start walking to a car parked in front and I’m coming down the street and just as I’m about to pass I shout out,
Hey shit stain, fuck her in the twat!
Their heads swing round and I stand up on the pedals and pump like my life depends on it and my heart’s banging away and I’m going fast enough I don’t think he would know it was me. I’m around a corner and my head feels light and floaty like when me and Jess got bored and bought three bottles of Dairy Whip from the corner market guy who gave us a funny look when we said it was for a birthday party but sold them to us anyway and we went to the big log and inhaled them and it lasted like three seconds but I wasn’t on a bike then going way too fast making the streets a blur. If I wipe out I don’t care. That would feel good, I think, the gravel scraping my arms and legs and my skin peeling back and head busting on the pavement. I can make it happen, take the corners hard, but it doesn’t happen, I guess I don’t want it bad enough. Streetlights start rising up and power lines crisscross and I’m coming up on the main strip on the outskirts of town with the cars and traffic lights. I weave in and out of traffic to the mall parking lot on the other side and power through the lot and lock my bike up cuz I know what happens to even shit bikes if you don’t lock them up. By the time I get to the entrance I smell like ass but don’t care. I walk in and go to the map and run my finger down the screen and find the bra store where Jess wanted to meet. I walk around with the map in my head but end up at Sears so have to find another map and start all over again. I get to the store but don’t know what to do once I’m there so just chill outside and look down at the tops of heads and all the bald spots on the level below and sometimes back at the store behind me. I’m too early and hate waiting so decide it’s OK to go in, better than standing here. So I go in and off to the side behind some displays thinking maybe I can just chill here till Jess shows up and no one will care. There’s panties and stuff hanging on the walls so I flip through them like I’m shopping.
Doing all right over here?
It’s a salesgirl. She’s come up behind me. She’s black and tall and pretty and dressed like she’s ready to go out dancing but she’s holding an iPad.
I’m just looking, I say.
Take your time, sweetie, she says, and starts straightening out some hangers. Just so you know, unless your girl is over 30, you might want to look in another section. She points across the store.
She’s eighteen, I say.
C’mon, hon. You thinking panties?
Slim, petite, heavier?
She hums and scans the wall and plucks a pair off a rack.
Something like this look right?
I shake my head.
How big we talking, hon?
I spread my arms wide.
She gives me a look and then goes over to another display and selects a pair.
These are really nice plus sizes. Thirty-nine ninety-nine on sale. Good deal.
I hold them up like I’m really inspecting them, like I actually know what would look good on my imaginary girlfriend.
Yeah, I say, I think this is it.
She can always return them for the right size if these aren’t right.
Was there anything else you wanted to get her?
I’ll ring these up for you, then?
She’s holding her hand out for them but I don’t give them to her cuz I realize I don’t have any money left. I spent it all on that stupid book. What the hell was I thinking? She’s looking at me with raised eyebrows.
No, I say.
You don’t want them anymore?
I do. I really want them. But I don’t have enough money and she’s looking at me with those raised eyebrows everybody’s given me practically since I was born.
You OK, hun?
Can you fit in these?
Can you fit your fat ass in these?
She takes a step back. She folds her arms.
You need to go, right now, out that door.
I drop the panties and start walking away and try not to look at anyone but I can tell people are watching me, so I tear out, I’m running.
I almost collide into Jess as she’s coming in and I’m going out. I hang a right and squeeze past people, trying to find the nearest exit. I come to a side entrance and bolt for the doors. I’m nowhere near my bike. I’m all turned around. I go down the sidewalk and around the mall till I’m out of breath and sit on a bench till Jess finds me.
Jesus, Chilt, what happened?
I don’t say anything. She sits and stays quiet till my breathing calms down.
What happened in there?
Did you do something bad?
Kinda, I say.
Not real bad but not good.
Chilt, she says and shakes her head.
I tell her I was gonna buy her something but it didn’t go right, I fucked it up.
What were you going to buy me?
A pair of panties.
You were gonna buy me a pair of panties?
I mean, I guess it was for you.
Well, was it for me or wasn’t it?
I dunno. Maybe I was thinking, like, you and me coulda shared them.
Chilton, you’re a mess.
You wanna wear panties with me?
Why didn’t you just say so? You don’t have to cut off your dick to do that, you know.
I didn’t but kept quiet.
Jess lives in an OK neighborhood about a mile from me with her mom in a lake cabin that isn’t really a lake cabin anymore, they’ve all been converted into everyday homes and some of them have dirt floors on the first level cuz they stopped working on them at some point. In her room I put on a pair of her panties. They didn’t fit worth a damn and Jess laughed and snapped pics of my hairy stomach rolling over the lace. They came out all blurry anyway. That was the first time she saw my dick. I stood there for a while without the panties on and just let it hang. She flashed her titties and pinched them and said they were super sensitive, it was all my fault she didn’t get her new bra. We’re sitting on the floor and she sees the book. What’s that? she says. I pick it up and flip through it and show her Yosemite and Joshua Tree and the Grand Tetons and she says it’s great and wants to go. I say we can’t and she says we can and I say no we can’t and she says yeah I’m probably right but it sure looks pretty.
I get home late and the house is all quiet and I creep upstairs and crawl into my sleeping bag. Jess sent me the blurry pics she took of me in her panties and I fall asleep looking at them. When I wake up my mom’s screaming like I never heard before. I pull the sleeping bag over my head and squeeze my eyes shut but it sounds like she’s being murdered down there. I can hear my dad yelling something but can’t make out what and my mom’s screams are getting worse. But this night isn’t like other nights. Everything feels all blurry and chopped up in my head. I’m getting out of my sleeping bag and going out into the hall, which I’ve never done before. I’m standing at the top of the stairs and it feels like I don’t have control over what I’m doing. I just know I can’t stay under my bed anymore and there’s nowhere else to go but down and before I know it I’m standing at the living room door in the front hallway. My dad’s walking back and forth in the living room without his shirt on saying something about how it’s my mom’s fault and she’s saying it isn’t and it’s clear he’s already smacked her good, she’s in the corner on her knees holding her head in her hands. Then he swings around and when he sees me it’s like he sees a ghost or something. What the fuck are you doing, he says? I don’t say a thing. He says it again. I can hear my mom screaming to get out but I don’t move. My dad’s eyes are huge like the animal eyes in my book. He walks in circles. He yells again. What the fuck are you doing here? I don’t say anything. I don’t know why. I usually have no problem saying lots of shit but I’ve never come downstairs when this is happening so who knows what I would say? Nothing, I guess. My mom’s hysterical. My dad’s screaming more stuff now but I don’t remember any of it cuz next thing I know I’m on the floor. I’m picking my head up and the side of my face stings. Everything’s ringing. I guess he hit me but I don’t remember. I crawl to the closet under the stairs and shut the door and push myself back far as I can and take out my phone and dial 911. Then it’s like time sped up cuz now there’s a bright light in my eyes and voices and people touching me but I’m not freaking out like I usually do. There’s a star and a gun and red and blue lights flashing on the trunks of trees and I think of me and Jess and the panties and the book cuz I left it at her place but it’s OK, I’m glad I left it there. I can go back.