It’s that last, endless minute of the school day, the clock on the wall ticking off each second like a time bomb, and then all at once it’s over — chair legs scrape along the floor, and young bodies and voices rise in unison and collide and rush in waves out into the corridors and down to the steel gray banks of lockers, where books tumble and all order gives way and the flimsy metal doors are slammed shut, one by one. I’m the first to pass through the heavy double doors and out into the quiet, fresh air.
Yellow leaves float down in the schoolyard as I make my escape. The hours of the day have passed without incident, so I walk briskly and happily, head down, feeling hopeful, not looking back. Then I hear footsteps behind me, gaining on me until they are right at my shoulder. A voice calls out, “Danny!” and my heart jumps, but I realize it’s just Raymond, appearing out of nowhere, startling me as usual.
Raymond’s in the same “promising” eighth-grade section as me — the promise being based on some test we took at the end of seventh grade — but I don’t think of Raymond as promising. Nobody does. He wears high-water pants, and his glasses are held together with masking tape. He has a scattering of white pimples on his forehead, beneath his greasy bangs. Sometimes he smells. It’s not unusual for Raymond to ignore homework assignments or openly draw on his desk during class. Still, I have no doubt he’s intelligent. He reads science-fiction books and True Detective magazines. He takes apart radios and puts them back together again. He knows unusual facts about insects.
I never asked to be Raymond’s friend. He just started catching up with me after school, tagging along for a while, then wandering home. I’m not sure where he lives exactly, but he’s mentioned a crummy third-floor apartment, and there aren’t any apartments in my neighborhood.
Raymond and I walk for a while, and then he does something new: he suggests we detour into the woods beneath the overpass for a smoke. I’m hesitant. For one thing, it would require negotiating a steep dirt path down from the road. Unlike Raymond, I’m wearing new shoes and new pants: penny loafers and plaid bell-bottoms with cuffs. Fashion is critical to me; it’s the one area in which I see myself as a trendsetter. I am the first kid in school to wear bell-bottoms with cuffs, and I’m not about to get them dirty.
“Don’t worry,” Raymond assures me. “You won’t fall.”
I clutch my books and dig my loafered heels into the dirt while Raymond slides down the path on his rear, dust clouds billowing up behind him. By the time I reach the bottom, he’s slouching against a tree trunk and tapping the cigarette pack. Thankfully, he doesn’t remark on my overcautiousness. I interpret this as a friendly gesture. “Want one?” he asks.
I nod casually, setting the books down at my feet. He lights mine first with a silver lighter. His hands are shaky, his fingernails chewed down to nothing, ragged, raw skin all around the cuticles.
“The lighter’s stolen goods,” he says, taking a deep drag. It doesn’t sound like a boast, merely a fact.
Afraid I’m holding the cigarette like my mother, I try to mimic the way Raymond holds his. I don’t inhale, because I know I’ll cough. “I steal cigarettes from my mom,” I tell him. “She says she’s quitting, but she really isn’t, so she can’t say anything. She sneaks them in the kitchen while my father’s falling asleep on the couch in front of the TV. Once, he got up for a beer, and she covered the ashtray with a dish towel, and the towel started smoking. I think there were actual flames. It was pretty funny.” I cast my eyes groundward, worried I’m being too chatty.
Raymond coughs, an impressively deep smoker’s hack. “I’ve got a habit,” he says.
“I don’t,” I say, and then quickly add, “yet.”
A car passes by on the bridge far above us. The hum of tires reverberates throughout the small ravine, reminding me we aren’t completely safe here. Kids sometimes stop to throw rocks over the edge, and we’d be easy targets. Also, though I feel comfortable with Raymond, I wouldn’t want to be seen with him. I’d rather be seen with a boy who doesn’t wear glasses, and who’s well dressed, shampooed, and popular. But then I wouldn’t feel comfortable.
Raymond stamps out his cigarette and announces that he has to take a leak. He walks a few feet away and stands with his back to me. I wonder if I should pee, too. It seems expected somehow, but I doubt I could manage it with him so close by. Instead, I take a few more puffs on my cigarette and think about Raymond in the showers after gym. He has recently developed hair on his body. Staring at him now, I think of where each tuft of hair is located. Over the summer, except for me and a few unfortunate others, the boys in my class became men. They snap towels and dry off slowly; for them, there is no hurry. For me, the locker room is a place of terror and wonder. I yank on my clothes over dripping arms and legs, over my wet, boyish parts that could so easily betray me.
As Raymond shakes himself off, I quickly look away and am shocked to see, through the trees at the top of the hill, a fragmented view of my grandmother’s house: a blue porch post with vines tangled around it, a piece of the mansard roof, a darkened attic window. This shouldn’t surprise me. I know that you can see these woods from her porch. But it’s as if my grandmother herself were standing watch, reading my thoughts. With relief, I remember that she’s a couple of hundred miles away right now, visiting relatives with my mother. My father and I will be on our own tonight.
Raymond returns to my side, making his usual sniffling sounds. “I went streaking around the block last night,” he says, as if this were the type of thing anyone might do.
“By yourself?” I ask, staring at the stain where he peed on the tree trunk.
“Yep, solo. After midnight.” He snorts and adjusts his glasses, leaving them even more crooked than they already were.
I imagine him running beneath the dim streetlamps near the railroad tracks, by the shabby riverside houses there. I imagine myself behind the window of one of those shabby houses, watching a naked boy run past after midnight.
“You weren’t afraid of getting caught?” I ask.
“Nah, my mom works the night shift, and everyone else was asleep.” He shrugs and lights another cigarette. “Hell, if somebody saw me, that’d be all right.”
Raymond has told me before that he’s an only child of sorts: his mother gave up her other kids because she was too young to raise them at the time, barely older than us. I wonder what it would be like to be alone at night, with no one to make sure I got my homework done, no one to tell me when to go to bed, no one to talk to, no one to hide things from.
“My mother’s in Canada tonight visiting relatives,” I blurt out. “She’s usually always home. It’s a pain.”
“Is your father around?” Raymond asks.
“Of course. He’s working,” I say, thinking this a very stupid question, until I remember that Raymond’s father is long gone, probably in jail. “My dad owns an auto-parts business,” I say, wanting to draw a clear distinction between my normal, hardworking dad and Raymond’s good-for-nothing one. “He works really long hours. When my mother’s gone, he takes me out for dinner at the Roma.”
Raymond makes a face. “One of my mother’s boyfriends took us there once. He was a total asshole.”
“My father was in the army with Tony, the owner,” I reply. “And he’s not an asshole.”
My father and I go to the Roma Restaurant and Lounge only when my mother’s away. She calls it “that gloomy dive” and refuses to set foot in the place. Consequently, it’s become my father’s and my special spot. I like everything about it: the low, cavernous ceiling, the red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the cozy booths, the antlers mounted above the bar. On each table, a candle glows behind rippled glass the color of butterscotch. Flo, the waitress who’s been there a million years, knows what we want without asking: veal parmesan for my father; mostaccioli and meatballs for me. When he isn’t busy, Tony sits with us while we eat and orders us drinks on the house. “Give the kid an extra cherry,” he says to Flo with a wink.
If the restaurant’s crowded, my father and I do our best to make conversation on our own, but mostly I fiddle with my straw and squint at the flickering candles until they become butterscotch stars. His handsome, dark eyes focus on a spot somewhere over my shoulder, and he rubs his forehead and asks about my classes. When we’re through eating, he motions to Flo for the check, then clears his throat and, after a painful pause, asks about the other side of school: drugs, drinking, whether any kids I know are in trouble of any kind. He always reserves this talk for the end. Finally, his voice trailing off, he adds that if I ever want any advice about anything . . .
I both dread and need these conversations. They’re the one time I know for certain that my father cares for me, even if he can’t quite put it into words, but I also can’t ask his advice about what’s really troubling me: Last year, a boy I knew only by sight said to me in the cafeteria line, “Did you know you’re a fucking pansy flower?” I stood there expressionless, face burning, body frozen. I don’t think my father would want to know about these kinds of moments. Besides, if someone I barely know can see right through me, what about my father, who supposedly knows me so well?
“Let’s split,” Raymond says, squatting down to crush his cigarette butt into a toadstool. When he stands up again, I notice his fly is halfway down. A flash of skin shows through the gap. At school once, I saw a dime-sized patch of white through a hole in the seat of Raymond’s pants. At first, I thought it was underwear, but then I knew it wasn’t. The more I resisted looking, the more magnetic the patch of skin became.
“Wanna come to my house?” I suddenly offer, though I’m usually not the type to extend invitations. “My father won’t be home for a long time.” My parents’ absence is critical. Raymond is not the sort of friend they expect me to have.
Raymond takes off his glasses and rubs them on his shirt. “You’re a good guy, Danny,” he tells me, his tone serious, not mocking. I think of how he goes out of his way to be with me, when no one else does. I owe him something. That’s when I mention there might be some liquor we could drink.
Standing hunched over on the countertop before the open cabinet doors, I reel off an impressively exotic selection: apricot brandy, crème de menthe, sloe gin, blue curaçao. I know all the places in the house where liquor is kept. My father has a private stash of gin in the furnace room, beneath his workbench. My mother stores her vermouth in the corner kitchen cabinet, behind the Lazy Susan. Only a fool would touch these. The rest, the stuff that was given to them as gifts or isn’t used much, is here in the upper cabinet, on the top shelf above the glasses.
“Whiskey,” Raymond says decisively. “Stay away from that froufrou stuff. It’ll make you sick.”
“Whiskey?” I say, disappointed by his use of “froufrou” to describe the bottles I find most appealing. On the Roma’s menu, I’ve studied the tropical looking illustrations of the Sloe Gin Fizz, the Harvey Wallbanger, the Singapore Sling. These are the drinks I plan to order as soon as I am able. Reluctantly, I take down the whiskey and inform Raymond that I had several fancy cocktails at my cousin’s wedding two years ago and felt completely fine.
Raymond is sitting on one of the rotating stools at the countertop that separates the kitchen from the dining area. He glances around the room without an expression. I wonder if he’s impressed by my house.
In the refrigerator, I find several mixers to choose from. I know tonic water’s vile. The others I line up on the counter, along with a jar of maraschino cherries. When my father gives me the cherry from his Tom Collins tonight at the Roma, I will have to avoid his eyes.
Otherwise, I just have to remember to clean up any evidence. I check the clock on the stove: plenty of time. We can have a couple of drinks, and I’ll have everything back in place long before my father gets home. Any effects of the alcohol will be gone by then.
“Do you mind paper cups?” I ask Raymond. “My mother might be suspicious of glasses in the dishwasher.”
“Whatever,” he says.
I crack the metal ice tray and plop a couple of cubes in Raymond’s cup. “Tell me when,” I say, pouring generously.
“When,” Raymond says when his cup’s half full.
I pour an equal amount of whiskey into my cup and top it off with a splash from each of the bottles, figuring it’ll be less noticeable if I take just a tiny bit of each. There’s only one cherry left, so I offer it to Raymond, but he says it’s all mine. I pour in some of the sweet red cherry juice as well and take a sip. “It’s almost like a Sloe Gin Fizz,” I say, pleased with my concoction.
We finish the drinks quickly, and I make two more, which we bring into the living room. I sit on the couch, and Raymond plops down in one of the two La-Z-Boy chairs. He surveys the room but again makes no comment.
“My mother wants to have this room redone,” I say, “new wallpaper with a border and new upholstery for the couch.” I sense that interior decoration is not an appropriate topic for boys, but the silence demands conversation, and my mind is a blank. Walking home from school with Raymond is easier. Now that I’ve invited him over, I feel obliged to entertain.
Raymond swallows the last of his drink and crunches up the ice cubes.
“Can I bring you a refill?” I ask, sounding like Flo.
He crushes the cup in his palm and tosses it aside. “Sure.”
I try to gulp down my drink. Even with all the mixers, it’s very strong. I explain how the La-Z-Boy’s footrest goes up and the back reclines all the way back, almost like a bed.
“I know,” Raymond says, picking at a scab on his arm. “I’ve seen these chairs before.” He peels it off and sucks at the fresh blood.
I pick up his crushed cup from the carpet, conscious of being overly fussy but wanting to maintain control from the start. The drinks don’t seem to be having much effect yet — which is good, since it would take only a couple of slurred words at the Roma to give me away. My older sister, who’s off at college, says our dad is like the TV detective Columbo: he pretends to be really slow and clueless, and then, just when you think you’re home free . . . bam, you’re busted.
Raymond follows me to the kitchen and spins around on one of the stools. “Hey, you got any mags?”
I’ve climbed back up on the countertop, thinking it might be time to try something new. “Well, there’s a magazine rack beside the couch in the living room.” I grip the cabinet doors firmly and stare at the array of bottles. The labels are a bit hard to read.
Raymond lets out a snort. “Not that kind of magazine.”
“Oh,” I say with a startlingly high-pitched giggle, the ceiling suddenly seeming lower than before. “That kind of magazine!” The magazines he’s talking about are hidden in two places: under my father’s side of the bed, and in a paper bag beneath his workbench, next to the gin. The idea of looking at them with Raymond strikes me as dangerous. It will require serious acting skills. I suspect my skills won’t improve with another drink, but I definitely want another drink. Pretending not to know where the magazines are crosses my mind, though only for a second. “I’ll get them,” I say, lowering myself gingerly to the floor.
“What are you drinking now?” Raymond asks.
“Tequila,” I say. “I think that’s what I had at my cousin’s wedding: Tequila Sunrises. Where’s your cup?”
“It’s squashed, remember? You’ll get sick if you mix things like that.”
“I never get sick!” I say, and remind him how I had about five drinks at my cousin’s wedding and felt giddy for twenty minutes, maximum. I give Raymond plain whiskey again and pour tequila and orange juice into my cup. There’s just enough cherry juice left to give it a nice pinkish tint. I hold the cherry jar up right next to my eyes to confirm that the cherries are really all gone.
“What are you doing?” Raymond asks. “What about the magazines?”
The magazines! “Wait here!” I say, and take a big swallow of my drink. It’s really good this time.
Which magazines? That’s the question. Under the bed are the usual Playboys and Penthouses. In the basement are the cruder ones, the ones my mom mustn’t know about. In these, the models have dark circles under their eyes and shiny faces, tattoos and pimples. But there are also men in some of the pictures. I go downstairs.
The furnace room smells musty and is full of boxes containing Christmas decorations and camping equipment and old games like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. A clean set of work clothes hangs next to the washing machine, ready for my father to step into tomorrow. Seeing his clothes is like seeing my grandmother’s house from the woods: I can imagine him in them, knowing my every thought and move. I briefly hope the magazines have magically vanished, but the bag is right where it always is. Crouching down, I grab it from the bottom. Sawdust flies up, and I taste it on my lips. When I stand, I bang my head on the bottom of the bench, causing tools to clatter above. “Heads up, fucker!” I say, though it doesn’t hurt a bit.
When I get back upstairs, Raymond’s not in the kitchen. I feel foolish standing there alone with the big bag of dirty magazines. The countertop looks disturbingly cluttered with bottles and cups and things from the refrigerator that shouldn’t be left out, like trays of ice. Then I hear the toilet flush, and I start laughing, thrilled Raymond hasn’t abandoned me.
I also hear the dogs barking. I’m supposed to feed them. My mother doesn’t allow them in the house because “they’re too high-strung,” but I always go out to play with them after school. My father and I take care of them; our affection for the dogs is one of the few things we have in common.
Suddenly, hands are cupped over my eyes, and there’s barking in my ears. I turn around and meet Raymond’s laughing lobster-red face: “Woof, woof!” Then he snatches the bag from me, carries it into the living room, and turns it upside down over the floor.
My face grows hotter and hotter as I see the magazines spread out between us. I’ve never looked at them with another person before. They’re not like Playboy, where the girls just smile and pose. In some of the pictures, people are actually doing things.
“Where’s my drink?” I say frantically, thinking it will help cool my face. I leap to my feet and race to the kitchen. Raymond’s cup is empty, so I splash more whiskey into it. My cup is still almost full. Not wanting to lag behind, I try to finish it in one gulp but pour some down my chin. I have to put the ice cubes back in the freezer. I have to make myself another drink. I have to keep Raymond from leaving. There’s too much to do all at once. The orange juice spills over the top of my cup. I wipe it up and make sure the formica isn’t sticky. The carton’s getting low. Wait, that’s all right. Drinking orange juice is all right. “Whoa,” I say, trying to slow myself down. The cherry jar is still empty, so I rummage in a drawer and find a bag of hard candies and unwrap a red one: a cherry substitute. It makes a fizzy sound in the drink — a Sloe Tequila Fizz. This strikes me as hilariously clever.
“I’m back,” I announce, a cup in each hand, but Raymond doesn’t look up from the sea of magazines. The bag is thrown off to one side and torn down the middle. Seeing it ripped gives me a woozy, sinking feeling. “Here’s your drink,” I say, trying to focus on the pictures, which look strangely abstract.
“Not bad,” Raymond says of the magazine in his lap. “These your dad’s?”
“Of course,” I say, though I could never envision my father looking at them. To me, it seems more likely they were left behind by some previous owner, and my father just accidentally inherited them. He surely wouldn’t go into the kind of store that would sell these magazines. I bend over Raymond’s shoulder and see a woman’s legs spread apart, hairs so magnified they resemble wires, flesh and openings and redness like wounds. He turns page after page. I drink some more and feel secure knowing that, as long as Raymond is enjoying the magazines, he will stay. Being left alone now seems the very worst thing possible.
Raymond lies on his back, holding a magazine above him, studying the centerfold with great interest. I crawl toward him and see an enormous naked woman sitting on a motorcycle, brandishing a whip in one hand and touching herself with the other. “Look at those honkers!” I shout, trying to muster some enthusiasm. Raymond doesn’t seem to hear me.
I sit close beside him, casting my eyes over the shameful mess, imagining the horrible, dark look that would come over my father’s face if he saw his private things scattered about like this. Even darker if he knew which magazine I longed to pull from the mess — the one I won’t touch, not unless Raymond touches it first. In that one, boys lie next to one another on wrinkled sheets, their hands wandering to places where I can’t imagine mine going. The boy I like best looks young and sad, more innocent than the rest. He has a birthmark on his thigh and downy hairs around his bellybutton. But his parts are definitely a man’s parts. It’s obviously a mistake my father has this magazine. I will Raymond to pick it up and turn accidentally to those precious pages and find my boy.
“I gotta go,” Raymond says.
I don’t comprehend this right away. The sad boy with the birthmark has taken over my thoughts. If only I could show him to Raymond and have Raymond understand. Through the picture window, there are the colored leaves and the blue sky and the shimmering hills in the distance. Raymond is sprawled out on the floor. I’m sure I see something move at the front of his pants, beneath his fly. I want to reach for the zipper. It’s still halfway down.
Suddenly Raymond’s standing up, moving very quickly. I have to make him stop. I begin spouting ideas: How about another drink? I’ll show you the rest of the house. Here, look at this one! There’s lots of time left! I toss magazines in his direction and try to find the one where they’re really doing it. “There’s proof,” I say, draining my cup. “You can see his stuff on her stomach.” Something catches at the back of my throat. Oh, ha, ha — it’s the candy. I put it between my teeth. Hey, Raymond, look at this. Really funny. Oops, it falls and gets stuck in the carpet. I put my hands behind my back and pick it up with my teeth, like bobbing for apples. The door is opening, letting in painful blocks of light. “Raymond, wait!” Wait for me!
The screen door slams behind me — the door I’m always careful not to let slam. The neighbors’ house across the street looks odd, shifting around behind buzzing telephone wires. Raymond’s getting smaller and smaller up the street. I can’t keep up because I’m in my stocking feet. But I’m sure he’ll come back and sneak up on me again because I’m calling him. He’s just playing tricks. He goes out of his way to be with me. I start to skip cheerfully, but the pavement is hard, and sharp little rocks slow my progress. Raymond’s outline is hazy now, miles away.
There’s nothing left to do but go back. I trip over the sewer grate and fall down, skinning the palms of my hands. Bright red drops spring up, like candies. Far in the distance, I hear dogs barking, our dogs, hungry, jumping up and down.
My father’s voice reaches me from above, through layers and layers of black fog. He’s asking questions. Something about the hospital, and have I been drinking? No, I say. Yes. We won’t be going to the Roma tonight. Shadowy memories arise of shoving the magazines, the awful magazines, into a new bag as the gray light of dusk seeped in the windows, taking over the house; the stairs to the basement swaying, rising up and falling back down again; bottles and cups and melted ice and sticky counter tops, cabinet doors wide open, too late now. On my knees in the hallway, crawling toward bed, terrible messiness, many things left undone, failure and ruin everywhere. Raymond was right about mixing making you sick.
“I didn’t feed the dogs,” I say to my father as I begin to cry.
Two days later, I walk down the corridor to the principal’s office. Other kids are shedding their jackets, gathering books from their lockers, butting elbows, horsing around at the water fountain. The first bell rings. Teachers pass me with cups of coffee in hand, looking bland and grumpy. “Good morning, Daniel. We missed you yesterday,” says my homeroom teacher. Everything is the same, yet it all seems different, as if it doesn’t involve me. I am not worried that Raymond will tell.
Miss Browne, the assistant principal, rises from her desk and holds out her hand for my excuse. I hand it to her, knowing it won’t be questioned. In her eyes, I am one of the good ones, a nice boy. The excuse is the same one my mother always writes and my father always signs: “Daniel needed to be absent from school yesterday due to illness.” Miss Browne adds her signature beneath my father’s and says she hopes I’m feeling better. I say truthfully that I am. I suspect I should feel guilty, but I don’t. My life, I see, will continue, with new possibilities. I can have secrets and survive. The late bell rings. I feel clean and empty, older, maybe even a little smug.
When I get home from school, my mother says there’s a letter for me in my room. She doesn’t know who it’s from.
Sitting squarely in the middle of my neat orange bed spread is a blue envelope addressed to me in childish block letters. My smugness fades fast. Is it a joke, a prank? Who could’ve sent it? My hands tremble as I open the letter.
It’s a get-well card: two puppies in a flower bed on the front, wishes for a speedy recovery inside, and a personal message written in the same childish script as on the envelope, with a few intentional misspellings and the dogs’ signatures scrawled crudely at the bottom. They were worried about me. They forgive me.
Of course, a store-bought card adds a certain formality and distance. And the childish writing and dogs’ signatures give it a humorous spin, deflect the emotion. But the love and forgiveness behind it are real. It’s a message from my father to me, and I believe it.
A quarter of a century later, I still believe it.