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Sara Reish Desmond
The local paper reports that my father’s farmer, Chew Turner, the man he used to pay to grow alfalfa in the forty acres he owns out west of town, a man who tipped his hat and called my mother ma’am and only stepped inside if my father was home, has been indicted on three counts of child molestation and pornography. The article will explain that one boy and two grown men have come forward; one of the men, my age. But I don’t read the article when it falls out of my birthday card from Mom, who sends eerie whispers from home in the form of news clippings. Instead, I let my eyes go fuzzy like they do when I’m distracted and read it toward midnight, when I think my son and everyone is sleeping under night’s heavy hand.
Later, on the phone, my mother will ask me if I knew those boys. And I will say I remember their names, not their faces. But I’ll already be thinking about the boy the article doesn’t name. My mother will say she sees Chew around town all the time: in the Shop Rite, whizzing past her on route 15, at the high school football games. Like since she’s read about him in the paper, he’s multiplied. But that’s the consciousness of a small town. People notice each other out of duty and talk about it too, as if they might disappear if they don’t. They remember every drowning in the Susquehanna, they remember the boy who took his life in the high school bathroom, the hate-filled arsonists who burnt the Amish farm. They’ll remember Chew Turner, too. But maybe no one but me will remember Sal.
My older brother, Wes, calls every year to wish my son, Ben, a happy birthday and realizes just then that he’s missed mine by two days. But it’s not embarrassment that makes him talk to fill all the empty spaces in our conversation: So how was it, Grant? Your birthday, I mean? Some good family time, huh? You must have had a cake and all that? Geez, two days earlier and Ben would have your same birthday. He’s thirteen. Nuts, huh? Some people are just quieter than others. He thinks I’m quiet to seem smarter or more controlled, but that’s not the reason why I am. I think people who talk less do so because of the memories they’ve accumulated—the ones struggling to consciousness like distance-dimmed stars struggling through the haze of city lights.
This morning, in the Hallmark store, as I waited for the woman to fill thirteen balloons with helium, a memory surfaced. Just like that. And when she turned to me, I had the look of it on me, I’m sure I did. I think my eyes pinch at the corners so my crow’s feet deepen, and maybe I look skeptical or puzzled or pained. The woman was frightened for a moment, wondering if maybe I was having a stroke, or if I’d forgotten where I was or what I’d come for. Sir, your balloons, she said, as I tried to pull myself from the vision of Sal’s blue BMX loaded in the back of Chew’s truck, just before sunrise, not light enough yet for a reflection on anything; just the dull, blue-grey veil of morning on everything. Now, all I can think of is how I’d gotten there too late, the wheels of his bike no longer moving freely through the frame the way they’d been known to do for hours with the help of even the slightest breeze. Just the wheels, dead still. Sir, your balloons, she said again.
I’m driving Ben to his birthday party at the paintball course in Camden. He is contemplative, a small “v” between his eyebrows that makes him look older than thirteen, as he stares at the industrial landscape through his window. The buildings are boxy and pragmatic and have a certain monotony to them the way the corn and soybean fields did where I was raised; ordered and managed as they were in neat rows and acres. Ben doesn’t like to go there to visit anymore. He claims there’s nothing to do in central Pennsylvania even though his grandparents have a game room and a Wii and stable full of horses. I want him to like it because I am born of that place, I am part of its memory, and its memory is mine. This summer when we visited, we fed the new ponies sugar cubes and flew kites and I made a big deal of teaching him to fly fish–got him a vest and rod. He frowned the whole time and seemed miserable in his waders, swatting the bugs away from his face. I explained it takes a long time for a person to learn how to flick his wrists right, that part of fishing was patience and endurance and that every year he’d get a little bit better.
“Is it good so far? Your birthday, I mean?” I ask him.
Ben hums out the sound pattern of I don’t know and his eyes remain fixed outside. I have grown tired of waiting for him to smile and talk to me.
“Kind of a crappy day,” I say. “Good thing the course is inside.”
“Good thing,” he says.
He’s been spending more time in his room than usual, reading graphic novels in silence, building model planes, stewing. His mother says he’s got all the clinical signs after she reads a Newsweek article about adolescent depression in America. Last week, she lightly knocked on his door hoping to check what she calls his emotional pulse. I strained at the door to hear their conversation and when Shelly emerged reporting 40 excruciating beats per minute, I could not bring myself to ask about the content of their talk. Well-adjusted men know how to reveal themselves, and to whom and when is the appropriate time. But boys with that capacity for self-containment have slim chances of being well-adjusted men.
“That F-14 model Grandpa got you looks like a challenge. We can try to do part of it together tomorrow if you want.”
“I’ve done that kind before. It’s not that hard. You just have to be careful you don’t use too much cement or you can see it in the joints.”
“Oh,” I say. “Well, you’re working on quite the collection. I’ll have to build another shelf for your room.”
“Okay, Dad.” He’s throwing me a bone, giving me something to do. I’m being appeased by my thirteen-year-old son. I stop talking altogether for a while so that against the patter of rain on the window, the double-edged quiet settles around us. Right now, I am relieved he does not want to talk. Maybe tiny pieces of distant light are finding their way to his consciousness. He switches on the radio and scans to a channel that’s all crashing and screaming. Then he sits back again, and nods his head hyper-fast. I try, in vain, to decode the angry vocals.
“Do you know this song?” I say lightly, reserving judgment. Condemning him would only deepen the chasm of disconnect we’ve developed in the last year.
“Not all of it. But I know the band,” he says.
This is something he would talk about. I should seize the opportunity. But I can’t. It’s rattling my brain. “I can’t even tell what they’re saying. Do you listen to this kind of music a lot?”
“Bret listens to it.”
Oh god, I think. His best pal listens to kill-your-mother-music.
“I don’t like it,” I say in a snap because I hope he’ll shut it off. But now I’ve done what I feared. I can’t take the words back. It’s just that it’s so angry and dark and maniacal. I try to retrace my misstep, “I don’t like that you like it. But you can.”
But this conversational train has jumped the track and my permission fails. Ben turns off the radio, pulls his Phillies cap low over his eyes and sits back to sulk. He hates me in ways I never imagined he might. He is my flesh and blood but in his mind I am too old and far away and he would never guess that I had been angry and uncertain of so many things, too. I think about the news article again. The two men my age still live locally; one a prison guard, the other a college professor. I found their faces in my senior yearbook as if it was the first time I’d ever seen them. But now they were in my mind like Sal was, like ghosts. I wondered if I didn’t know them because of what Chew took from them that made them impossible to know.
The summer my parents considered moving from Mount Joy to Japan so my father could teach and finish his book on alternative medicine and its roots in ancient cultures, we sold the house and lived in a rental on a small street by the Agway. To our left was a poorly-kept apartment complex with peeling paint and food-stamp families, the presence of which my mother found insulting to her station in life. To our right were the neighbors who sold radiators in their yard. Who knew so many people had the need to dispense with or buy up old radiators? Mom hated being sandwiched between human trash and yard trash. To add to her complaints, our rental was painted school bus yellow, its oven was crooked and the basement flooded regularly. But I loved it. Eight kids on the block made it easy to field a kickball team or play jailbreak. The alley was narrow and lit by street lamps that Wes used to kick into submission by throwing his full weight against the base of the poles to make it dark enough for spin the bottle or flashlight tag. Because of this I got the sense that anything could happen there and that even the dangerous stuff, like jumping from the garage roof or playing chicken, was magical.
Maybe that magic was fueled by my and Wes’s obsession with all things martial arts. We’d been watching a lot of Steven Segal movies and instead of Mom enrolling us both in karate (a move that might’ve proved useful in the future when dark places became real threats), Dad bought us Chinese throwing stars. He wouldn’t let us get a trampoline, saying I don’t have you in braces so that you can knock out your teeth, but somehow, weapons made the cut. He went to the hardware store and bought a wooden board and drew the outline of a human on it for us to throw at. He even drew a face. Smiling. Dad had enough confidence in our sibling love and rivalry to leave us without a set of rules or instructions. He always said brothers aren’t for friendship, they’re for justice.
That summer, my brother Wes and I could still settle everything by “killing Mr. Wood.” If one of us had to stay home to babysit our little sister, Dooly, we took it to the alley. Who got the last porkchop? Kill Mr. Wood and it was yours. If we could’ve settled jealousy, we would’ve thrown for that, too. We determined that any blow to the heart, neck, or the top of the head was a kill; not to the face, that was Wes’s rule. He argued that the average person wouldn’t die by a thrown star to the face. Eventually we began signing and dating our kills until Mr. Wood looked, from a distance, as if he were swarmed by flies.
I met Sal while my brother and I were throwing stars in the alley. He walked up behind us and startled Wes so badly that he released his star a moment too late and it stuck into the garage door instead.
“You missed, fucker,” I grimaced. Wes would have to mow the lawn.
“Can I try?” Sal asked from behind. I turned to the new kid thinking we could use a little fresh blood since our kickball team was looking beat, and said, “You can throw Lawn Mower Man’s star.”
Sal lived in the split family on the other side of the radiators. He was a beanpole of a kid and seemingly boneless, too. He cinched his belt so tight around his hipless waist that his pants doubled over in the back. And his face was smooth and flawless, like puberty couldn’t touch him even though he was almost sixteen. At school, he hung out with farm girls (the ones who rode the bus to school after a full morning of milking or feeding or collecting eggs) while my friends were the kids of people like my parents used to be who lived in fancy houses and had central air conditioning and mud rooms. Sal had a sister and a mom but no dad to speak of, so I guess it was no surprise he liked hanging out with girls.
Sal pulled Wes’s star from the garage door and, motioning to our rental, asked, “You live here?”
“We do for now, anyway. It’s a piece of shit, but I got the nice room with the sweet sun deck.”
Sal fingered the sharp points of the throwing star. “I live in that house,” he jerked his head toward a humble duplex. “Trade you rooms if I hit the head.”
Wes and I didn’t play like that. It was kill or no kill and if there was a debate we’d call Dad in to verify the location of major arteries.
“You ever thrown one of these before?” I asked.
I didn’t bother explaining the technical rules. “It’s a deal, then. Good fuckin’ luck, dude.” We shook hands.
Some lucky shot. He hit Mr. Wood right in the eye, which is technically the head even though by Wes and my rules, it wasn’t a kill. We argued about it for awhile until he said, “If you’re gonna be a cheat, keep your stupid room with the sweet sundeck you spoiled pussy.”
“I’m not spoiled,” I said.
“If you say so. Wanna come over?” And just like that, we were friends.
Ben is holding a plastic dragon figure his sister Marla gave him this morning. When he was younger, Shelly and I used to let him wear a cape wherever he wanted. The day he turned eight, he came to me wearing it and asked if I’d come with him to the roof. When we got there, he untied the string from his neck, balled the cape up in his small fist and threw it over the edge of our apartment and into the alley dumpster below. We both watched it fall, billowing up like some misplaced jellyfish, and then I turned to see his face. That’s when he said, it’s okay, dad, and we went inside.
“Do you know the names of the moms and dads I’m going to see at your party?” I ask.
“Oh, god. Are you guys going to embarrass me?”
“No. I mean, I’ll try not to. I think I’m pretty good at paintball, right?”
“Look, parents are there to be sure no one gets hurt, to gather up the gifts and the cards. To cut the cake. Then, we drive you home.”
“I don’t know why you and Mom both have to be there.”
“Ben. It’s your birthday. You’re our son. That’s what people do.”
“Well, they don’t have to. I mean, not everyone does that. Aaron’s dad won’t be there.”
That’s because Aaron’s dad is sleeping with a woman who is not Aaron’s mom. And while Ben knows they’re separated, he’s using it against me anyway. And then he continues, “And I don’t know why Marla has to be there.”
I wonder if he’d feel differently if he had a brother rather than a sister. Wes was good for the spirit in the way that mild bullying is good for a kid with an inflated ego. But Ben doesn’t talk to Marla and he doesn’t talk to me. I am grateful for Bret all of a sudden. I hope they can create a brotherhood of boys who aren’t afraid to talk, to ask questions, to tell one another what scares them.
The summer I met Sal, my mother grew protective in a way I had not witnessed before. She allowed my brother and I to fight it out, to throw at Mr. Wood. With Sal she used rescue instincts: food, water, a comforting place to stay. And he always found his way back to our den, lured by taco night and the seeming democracy of a two-parent household.
I only ever ate lunch at Sal’s. Which is to say that his mom, too tired from waiting tables, placed boxes and jars of snack food on the kitchen table (Cheez-its, Slim Jims, pickles, Tasty Kakes) and we grazed while she napped on the couch or watched Sally Jesse. Sal’s older sister, who was curvy and pouted most of the time, occasionally joined us in card-tossing if she was bored enough and wasn’t putting on mascara or whispering on the phone with her boyfriend. If the weather was crap, we could waste a whole summer day perfecting the wrist flick that could land a card in an open hat eight feet away. If the weather was nice, we took our skateboards to the alley or our dirt bikes to the acreage out west of town that my dad owned.
Wes and I used to go together to the acreage, but he didn’t want to go anymore once he found a girlfriend. And since I had a friend like Sal who took away any pangs I had for a girl of my own, even his sister who had black, shiny hair she tossed around for my benefit, I didn’t need Wes anymore. Sal and I would set up jumps and obstacles in the field and get farmer’s sunburns and then ride home near dark when Mom would feed us. From time to time, Chew would ride over on the tractor to see what we were up to. Sometimes, he’d offer us cold drinks or the use of his toilet.
Chew and Paula Turner lived in the modest farmhouse on the property with a couple of unfriendly dogs and cats that multiplied. Not long after I first took Sal to the acreage, Chew hired him to work odd jobs for extra cash. He seemed to always have work; a barn to paint, chickens to feed, equipment to hose down. And since he spent so much time working for Chew, sometimes late into the evening when he returned to our house looking sad and old, he didn’t want to ride out to the fields as much, so we spent more time skating in the alley with the other kids or throwing stars.
“You should be grateful we kept this from Gramma,” I say to Ben.
Now I’m holding something over his head. Shelly would call it stealing his power. It’s not that. He really should be thankful Shelly’s mom won’t be there to make him go through the humiliation of the birthday paddle where he crawls through the legs of thirteen people as they smack him on the ass. We’ve spared him that–at least until Tuesday when everyone comes for his family birthday dinner.
“So who’s going to be there? Aaron... and Bret, of course. Who else?”
“Why of course?” Ben says.
“Because he’s your best friend.”
“Oh. Well, I have a lot of other friends.”
“Yeah, okay. But he’s your special friend,” I say.
Ben widens his eyes at me. “Dad, that’s so queer.”
“Don’t use that word,” I say. Shelly has drawn lines in the sand about language.
“Oh, God. You sound like Mom.” He knows I rarely enforce her rules. It’s one of the ways we operate our own, exclusive universe and my disapproval further excludes me from membership. Before Ben started rejecting our outings, we would get buzzed on energy drinks and burp and never tell Shelly about where we’d been or what we’d done.
“You don’t mean queer so don’t use it,” I say. The word has the effect of a bass drum rattling my molars.
“Then don’t call Bret my special friend. It’s so, like, Sesame Street.”
Mid-summer, I spent a whole day combing through Wes’s and my cassette collection handpicking songs for a mix-tape for Sal. He was turning sixteen in a week and I’d already gotten him new two-tone wheels for his board, but a few tracks from Van Halen’s 1984 album were a celebration all their own. I was using my best handwriting to copy the playlist on the inside of the tape case when Wes barged in to my room.
“You been using my tapes you little bitch?”
“They’re both of ours, Wes.”
“Yeah, well you could’ve asked permission,” he said, snatching the case from my desk. “Oh, isn’t that cute. You made a little mix-tape for your boyfriend.”
“You’re such a dick,” I said.
He inspected the case. “Dude, there’s like, ballads on this.”
“They’re good songs.”
“They’re songs you make out to. Like, with a girl. You don’t put them on your friend’s mix-tape. Whoa. Wait.”
And then his face changed, because of the fleeting possibility that I had betrayed the fellowship of rough boys. He, who had not so long before wrestled with me on gravel, put his head in my groin and said you’re such a queer when I told him, in a rash but tender moment, that I had only kissed two girls. Now, he backed away from me, his eyes spinning like records, and I waited for his face to change, for him to become Wes again. In that moment, he might’ve been questioning whether words make the man, whether this was his punishment for all the hazing. It went kind of dark and hopeless instead, until he lunged at my throat with both hands and threw me on the bed. He was squeezing so hard that I couldn’t even gasp, my vision was spotty, his shaggy hair was obscuring his face as he pressed down. It was the onset of darkness that terrified me. My head pulsed. I did not want to see hate on his face, so I closed my eyes. That’s when he released his hands and spit the word faggot in my face before he got up and slammed the door.
“Are there going to be any girls there today?” I ask Ben, hoping he’ll lighten up.
“Yeah. Mom, Marla, Mrs. Trask...”
“What about the Singleton girl you worked on the science fair project with earlier this year?”
“She won’t be there, Dad. This is a paintball party. Guys are coming in camo, I think.”
“So, we’re not dancing or like going to the mall or anything. We’re shooting each other with paint.”
Ben flips down the visor and inspects himself in the mirror. He could use a haircut but he refuses. Says he’s growing his hair longer, wants to try it out. My guess is he wants to look more like Bret. He takes off his glasses and rubs away the dimples the nose pads have made there.
“See, don’t you think I look better without glasses?” he asks. Shelly has said no to contacts until he’s sixteen, when he’s more responsible and won’t lose them or keep them in so long they adhere to his eyeballs.
“I wouldn’t be able to see you at all if I didn’t have mine.”
“Dad,” he demands, like he’s disappointed by my joke.
“I think you’re a good looking kid no matter what you do. Hair long or short, glasses or not.” He rolls his eyes and we grow quiet again.
By the time it was Sal’s birthday, Mom and Dad had noticed that Wes and I had stopped talking. Mom insisted on throwing Sal a family party and baking him a lopsided cake in her lopsided oven and everyone, except for Wes, sang and clapped as he blew out sixteen candles.
Wes had to make a big scene at the dinner table. “Why don’t you give Sal his queer-gift now, huh Grant?” He exposed me on purpose, like I wouldn’t have admitted to making him a mix-tape in the first place, which wasn’t true.
“It’s not queer, you’re queer,” I said because my fury prevented me from being particularly inventive.
“Boys!” Mom said, more for Sal’s and Dooly’s sake than anyone else’s. “We’re trying to have a nice evening. If you wouldn’t mind leaving your squabble aside, I’m sure Sal would appreciate it.”
“It’s okay, Mrs. Masterson,” Sal said. And then, “Can I have another slice of cake, please?” like he couldn’t be touched. Like he floated just above the surface of the earth in a realm where wounds weren’t possible, and I wished I existed there, too.
Wes and I were grounded for the weekend for, “being rude in the presence of company.”
I whined, “It’s not company, Mom. It’s Sal,” to which Wes retorted, “Yeah, Mom, when Grant and Sal get married, he’ll be family, so it’s not like...”
Mom drew a finger, which she never did, because pointing was also rude in her book, and said, “Mr. Wesley Masterson, I’ve had enough. Just because you’ve got a girlfriend doesn’t give you license to taunt and gloat. Sal is a guest. Show some respect.”
I did give the mix-tape to Sal, but not on his birthday because Wes had effectively perverted the moment. I do know it was the tape that spent the most time in his Walkman that summer. A few days later, when I was finished being grounded, I set up a new trick course in the alley for Sal and I to skate through. He told me about a party at the Hardwick farm, like he’d only go if I wanted to.
“Yeah, I want to go. How’d you find out?”
“Heather Hardwick asks me every year. Just a bunch of drunk kids making out in barns. But, if you want to ride out, we can go.”
Later that night, he showed up in the alley on his bike with a flashlight duct-taped between his handlebars. I had been working on growing a few facial hairs that I allowed to coil up at the base of my chin, the way a balding man salvages the remaining strands on his head. But for this party I’d shaved, I’d showered, I’d tucked my throwing star into its pouch and then into my pocket in case I’d need to impress someone or defend myself. Country roads were scarier than alleyways, infrequently traveled so that bad things had fewer eyes to witness them.
“Look who thinks he’s gonna get laid,” Sal said as I opened the gate into the alley. It had taken me three changes to decide on jeans, my Phillies tee, and new checkered Vans.
“We’ve gotta try, right?” I said. “Besides, farm girls are easy.”
“They are?” Sal said. “I just thought that they’re friendly.”
Sal and I rode in tandem out to the farm, past my father’s acreage, on back roads and through freshly cut fields. We didn’t talk, the wind was too loud in our ears, but we played follow the leader all the way, which wasn’t fair for Sal because he couldn’t do a good wheelie. As soon as we crested Fox Ridge, we could see the glow of taillights and a small fire. The last light had been wrung from the horizon so we let ourselves be guided by the distant flickerings ahead. The Hardwicks raised veal. In the darkness, the pens looked like little mausoleums and the baby cows like zombies hanging their heads at the arched openings. I was thinking this when Heather Hardwick came busting out from behind the veal pens so that I was sure she was a zombie herself. I let out a high-pitched yelp as she staggered toward Sal buttoning her pants. She was laughing, probably at me, or maybe at our dirt bikes, but she said, “You made it!” throwing her arms around Sal and nearly knocking him off his bike. He held his head away from her as if avoiding her smell or contact with her face, which seemed to draw her closer to him. I took note of his nonchalance, and tried it on for the evening, hoping it might earn me the same attention.
Ben and I have gone to Camden Superfun a couple times a year since he was ten. Last month, when we’d planned to go, he cancelled on me saying he didn’t feel well but spent the whole day in his room watching YouTube while I did yard work.
“We haven’t been to the Superfun in a while,” I finally say.
“I have. You haven’t.” Ben scratches away the paint on the wing of his toy dragon.
“Oh. I didn’t realize you still go.”
“You don’t realize a lot of things.”
I think about how I listen at his door but can’t turn the doorknob, how we throw the baseball in the backyard, the snap of the ball in leather the only sound between us. I think about the times I’ve been cold or instructive or distant. I think about the bike in Chew’s pick-up, no flat-tire, perfect for riding, the wheels so still even as I checked over my shoulder when I rode away. So I say, “Ben. Tell me then. What don’t I realize?”
As I hope for his answer to break the long quiet, I think about how different the night at the farm might’ve been if we really would’ve gotten laid, if that was something each of us even wanted. Earlier that year, I had hung my arm around Marcie Green’s shoulders and, like a crane, slowly lowered my hand into her loosely fitting blouse while we watched, in her basement, some lame arm-wrestling movie with Sylvester Stallone. I had tried to find a nipple and she kind of bit her lip while I did and that was that.
At the farm, if it could’ve been that easy, Sal and I could’ve wandered away from the small bonfire and the cases of Keystone beer, our arms around fresh girls, to a place in the barn where only faint laughter and distant radio waves could be heard spreading out like a thin horizon over the nighttime farmland, no interference as the silos connected every farm in the valley. Beneath them we could have groped and grunted and panted and fumbled and been scared of our own potential while the radio waves floated easily above us, making music of it all.
But Sal and I didn’t wander away with fresh girls and he didn’t introduce me to anyone. He didn’t say to Heather Hardwick you remember Grant, which most likely she didn’t, but still. I would’ve even settled for This is Grant. He wants to see if your boobs feel like dough. This would’ve given me an in–an embarrassing in, but an in nonetheless. Kids at school had trademarks that made them memorable, but I was just plain Grant. I trailed behind Heather and Sal like a hungry puppy until they reached the bonfire and someone handed me a bottle of Jack Daniels. There must’ve been fifty kids, mostly farm kids and vo-tech kids who went to school half time and trade school the other half to be welders or cooks or beauticians. I recognized Cheap Charlie Willis and Mike the Beaver right away because they were inseparable and dressed alike in concert tees and torn jeans. I had made an extra effort to dress like I didn’t care, too.
I stood watching people move in constellations of threes toward the beer, away from the fire, into the corn, under the darkness. Girls giggled and tipped their heads back while boys watched for the flash of white beneath their necks where they might be lucky enough to press their lips. Pretty Jenny Skelling jumped off a flat bed and came over to wish Sal a happy birthday. Then she turned to me, trying to engage me to gain ground with Sal and said, “You’re Wes’s brother, right?”
“Yeah. Grant.” I extended my hand but she planted a kiss on my cheek instead, watching Sal out of the corner of her eye. The farm girls he hung out with were deliciously soft and smelled like fresh milk and had creamy complexions and long, shiny hair. Each one of them looked at him longingly and because I knew he didn’t want any of them, I felt even more privileged to be his friend. That had something to do with why my other friends fell away that summer, mystified by my absence, my seldom appearance at their parties which were held in game-rooms or pool-side with wine coolers and access to the old man’s liquor cabinet. Sal wandered away with the girls and I sat down on a log by the fire drinking from each passed bottle until I couldn’t distinguish faces from flames. We had ridden our bikes over Dad’s acreage to get to the farm and when I looked back in that direction, the fields were pulsing with fireflies like tiny, inconstant beacons.
Ben turns to me, shows me the full measure of his curious face, and says, “Grown-ups worry about how their kid’s gonna turn out, huh? You ask all these hard questions and then talk about them with other adults to decode the answers. But who asks grown-ups questions like that?”
“I dunno. I guess we ask each other,” I say. He takes few risks like this because my silence has a way of swallowing everything up. I struggle to hide that I am nervous and weak. “You wanna ask me a question?”
He looks at me like he never considered that an option and says, “I want to know why that article Gramma sent you makes you so sad.”
“It doesn’t make me sad. It makes me think.” I am trying to be honest but the pursuit terrifies me.
“It makes you think so much you can’t sleep?”
So then I know he’s seen me, these last few nights, reading and rereading the article and hunched over a box of old photographs, a heavy glass nearby and the unhealthy euphoria of insomnia letting the memory in. I found only a handful of pictures from the summer I met Sal. He is in only two of them. One, which Mom took, is a brown wash of candle glow with Sal’s waxy face puffing, illuminated like a jack-o-lantern over the birthday cake. The other features Sal and I with our skateboards, standing in the alley, a trick course set up in the background, our hair messy and damp with sweat. I can remember that day, one of mutual adoration as we set and accomplished new tricks, kept score, were big shots. That’s what my face reveals; the way I’m smirking at the lens. But Sal’s eyes are far away, stuck on something distant and secret. That’s the part I spent last night trying to unearth.
I realize Ben’s waiting for my answer with a patience unknown to thirteen-year-olds.
“Yeah. I guess that’s why I can’t sleep,” I say.
“Did you know that man?” he asks.
“Mr. Turner? I did know him, yes.” My mouth twitches at the corners as I await his next question. Most likely, he wants to know why I’ve been up late, sleepless, and what that man did to make him bad.
He knows enough to just say, “Oh.” So now I must prevent him from receding into quietude. But this is not the time. I have not figured where I stand, what I blame myself for, if I can resolve my shame and fear.
A few hours later, when Sal returned from winning girls’ hearts and the admiration of awkward boys, he was sweaty and slack-jawed.
“You cool?” he asked.
“Me too,” he said, helping me up from my place on the log. “You have a good time?”
“I guess. I feel like shit, though. I can’t go home like this.”
“No one says we have to.” At the time, it seemed that Sal did not live in fear, nor was he guided by household or personal rules, and even when his plans were devious, they were not complicated by morality. “We can sleep in the barn for a few hours and ride home before your mom wakes up.”
I thought that’s what we both did, but when I awoke to the first deep blue slits of morning creeping through the barn walls, he was gone. Outside, the embers in the fire pit cooled and a few last cars with fogged windows and snoozing bodies remained like large stones against the mild hunches of mountains. Sal’s bike was gone too, and with the sun nearly ready to break, I didn’t have much of a choice but to leave without him.
I decided to ride the way we’d come, in case something had happened to him. I felt for the throwing star in my pocket and mounted my bike. I don’t know how I managed to ride straight, let alone back through the rough-cut fields and towards my father’s acreage. I would have killed for a glass of water and remembered the brook that ran along the west side of Chew’s farmhouse. I stopped to contemplate its cleanliness and that’s when I saw it. In the steady blue of pre-dawn, Sal’s blue dirt bike in the back of Chew’s pick-up, leaned against the wheel well, having been ridden here or loaded into the truck at the Hardwick’s farm, placed there by the boy or the farmer, with the promise of a ride home or a cold drink or a warm place to sleep? I could not know. I rode away.
Ben and I are sealed in the car, thirteen balloons filling the back seat, the rain incessantly tapping its fingers on the windows, the radio off, the air still.
I say, “I’d like to tell you about my friend Sal some time.” I will spare him my uncertainty, my fears, I will not describe the misplaced feeling of betrayal that turned us away from one another that summer. But I will tell him about how I learned to throw cards and stars and talked more than I ever have, sometimes until I fell asleep. That is how I will do it.
Ben allows me my chance and says, “You wanna tell me now?”
“Not right now. But some time soon.”
I didn’t see Sal for almost a week after the party. I was angry at him for leaving me to get drunk by the fire and then in the barn, angry at my own insignificance, that Wes had a girlfriend and that no one ever remembered me. Sal was supposed to remember me. But he had left me and now he hadn’t come around for days and because I was confused, I was too paralyzed to knock on his door.
I was thinking about this and throwing stars at Mr. Wood, when Sal came around the corner so fast I thought he was running from something. He burned his back wheel on the gravel and stopped suddenly, as if from fear or guilt, and swept the hair from his face before stepping off his bike.
“Where you been?” he said.
“Me? I’ve been here. What about you?”
Now that I’m no longer a boy, but a father to one, I know how they operate. Emotions are more aptly drawn out by mothers or girlfriends. Or, by throwing punches.
“You pussy. Why don’t you just ask me?” Sal said, shoving me.
“Ask you what?”
“You know what,” he said, shoving me harder. I didn’t know what he meant, though. I just felt the same way I’d been feeling my whole life belittled by Wes’s shadow; like I’d been duped again by someone cooler, more experienced, more desirable.
“Okay. Why’d you leave me?” I asked, kicking the gravel with the toe of my shoe.
“Oh, sure. Get to it by asking other questions.”
“Sal, you left me sleeping in the barn. I didn’t know where you’d gone, if something had happened to you... you just disappeared. What am I supposed to think?”
“Think what you’re brother thinks,” he commanded, because maybe he thought it would be easier to concede to Wes’s mistruths than for Sal to tell me things I wasn’t prepared to know.
“My brother’s not right,” I said. But as the words came out, I didn’t know what I believed, just that I felt betrayed by something; not Sal, not Wes, not even Chew Turner who, I realize now, was guilty as hell. I cannot name, now, what it was then. Maybe I was betrayed by my own insecurity, that I was not brave enough to overcome my confusion.
At the end of that summer, we moved overseas as we’d planned four months prior. When I returned two years later, everyone had graduated, including Sal. I kept up with the boys like me who didn’t have names to remember them by. During college breaks and some summers before our grades earned us work opportunities in Washington and Manhattan, we shook hands with each other’s parents and took our shoes off in mud rooms and brought small gifts to each others family’s cocktail parties. I asked my mother about Sal, since she was a woman who, by her own account, was not part of the perpetual loop of town-gossip, but rather a stone in the stream over which information flowed. She had nothing to report although she said, I do wonder about that sweet, misguided boy. One winter break I thought I saw him ducking into a beat-up Honda with an “OHO Pizza” sign illuminated on the top. It was a man of his build, anyway, but the face was too much a blur in the snowfall for me to be sure.
When we pull into the lot at Camden’s Superfun there are already a few kids huddled under the front awning waiting for the birthday boy. He kind of smirks until he sees Bret, the friend he seeks to impress, and then his mouth explodes into a full-faced snaggle-toothed smile. Boys go through a kind of same-sex courtship sometime around Ben’s age when Dads lose their luster. They like each other’s stuff (their cool shoes, their new gadgets) but they’re mostly interested in what they can do. Sal was able to kill Mr. Wood in one try.
I drop Ben off and, as I pull away, he high-fives Bret before they disappear through the door. When I go inside, my wife will hand me a protective vest, tell me I’m on Ben’s team, which is almost worse than being the enemy. I’ll have to protect him. I’ll try to be as good as Bret but not better than him. I’ll dive and barrel roll and army crawl just a foot behind Ben and he will shake me off, scornfully, saying stop following me, Dad. Bret will be the one to stop what he’s doing and look at me, his mouth in an “o” of wonder. I will think of Sal again, he will keep me up tonight too, I will wonder if things might’ve been different if I’d known what to ask him that day, if I wasn’t so afraid of what he might’ve been telling me. I will always wonder what it would have taken to protect him. When I look at the photograph of us in the alley, I must guess that what his eyes were making out in the distance was the image of himself as he wanted to be–the image, he knew, only I saw. I will try to tell Ben about Sal some time, but my uncertainty will creep in and make a mess of the memory, I will look as if I’ve lost track of things, my mind groping for the unseen, distance-dimmed stars of the memory of that summer. Ben’s face will take to pity, and all I will be able to muster will be keep talking, Ben. Don’t go quiet on me.
Sara Reish Desmond, originally from rural Pennsylvania, was a high school English teacher before she took time off to write and raise her daughter. She is currently earning her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and “Those Unseen” is her fiction debut. She and her family live outside of Boston where she is at work on a collection of short fiction.
“The front porch of my youth was a granite stoop atop a steep bank in front of our old colonial. Every October, my brothers and I carved pumpkins and placed them on the porch in the days preceding Halloween. And every year I was devastated when deviants couldn’t prevent themselves from climbing the fifteen stairs and hurling the orange orbs into the street below, smashing them to bits. Every year I anticipated it and every year I placed my pumpkin there anyway.”