The trouble starts when my wife, Charli, gets a call from Win’s teacher, informing her that Win won’t stop kissing other boys on the playground. Win’s teacher says this is something best handled on the home front, but I know she wants to pass off the problem, and who can blame her. She had made herself clear—Win was not in trouble. Yes, the kissing had become a problem. No, this was not the first incident. When my wife hangs up the phone, she laughs in a way that reveals her confusion, and then hiccups. Since the second trimester, her body has encoded itself in this way—pressure and air. I ask what’s wrong and she gives me the news.
“Are you sure she said boys?”
“Yes, Warren. Boys.”
“But he’s only 10 years old.”
“Well, looks like he’s starting early.” My wife’s smile is a secret. She’s standing in the breeze from the kitchen window. I can see that Charli’s bangs have curled into tight ringlets in the heat, and the skin at the base of her neck is flushed. It’s late October—Indian summer, and the light of the season suits her. I take my hands out of the suds-stuffed sink, where I’ve been “trying to do my part,” a new program my wife has instituted in lieu of an anniversary gift.
I’m still struggling to get my head around what my wife’s just told me. The grade school Win attends is pastureland for liberals who want their kids to enjoy the exclusivity they gave up. Charli had insisted. “What they’re doing at West Hutton is reinventing education. They encourage students to find their own potential.”
“Warren. Don’t panic. This is nothing to panic about.” Charli rests her hands on the peak of her distended stomach, where I picture our second child, a girl, chortling—tiny bubbles rising through the amniotic fluid. Charli dumps herself into a chair.
“It’s that school’s fault. This is what happens when you abandon structure and discipline.”
Charli’s eyes take on a dark gleam, a warning sign, and they go as blunt as a shark’s snout. “I knew I’d have to go this alone,” she says under her breath, but loud enough for me to hear. “Let’s just talk to Win. Can we do that?”
“If this is the best that school can do, they’re not getting any more money from us.” This is the wrong thing to say, but I stand my ground, dripping soapy water onto the linoleum. I knew the school was going to be trouble when Win brought home his first report card, which had grades, but to subjects that were vague and alien. Cordiality: B–; Coherence: C; Good will: Needs improvement; and my personal favorite, Risk: A+.
Charli knits her fingers together. “It’s actually quite common for young boys and girls to experiment with members of their own sex. It’s just practice. This may mean nothing.”
“He should be beating up kids his age, not necking with them.”
“Warren, please.” Charli stands up slowly, pulling at the hem of her stiff, peach-colored maternity shirt, and I’m again struck by how calm she can remain in any situation. Everything balanced. Not a note out of place—and sometimes, in certain situations, this is absolutely infuriating. My wife, employed as a lawyer for one of the top law firms in the state, went back to work when Win turned four, another decision I did not support. She deals with civil liberties cases, meaning she often fails to understand the concepts of guilt and blame. Since her return, she has convinced her partners to institute a daycare center for the company. She intends to be back to work three weeks after Mia is born.
“Okay,” I say. “Where is he?”
Charli takes my arm at the wrist and starts massaging it. “Promise me you won’t get crazy. Just once pretend that you’re not the son of a four-star admiral.”
“That’s pretty low, even for a lawyer.”
Charli’s fingers dig into my pulse.
When Win was seven, his three goldfish—HMS Nautilus, Seawolf, and U-boat—died in the ick plague of ’05. He demanded that Charli and I drive him to his grandfather’s, where they could be given a proper naval burial. This is also not the first time Charli and I have been contacted by the school for Win’s behavior. Last year, he’d dared a classmate to snort salt. I thought that proved his classmate’s idiocy rather than Win’s delinquency. In the afternoon art period, when asked to draw a picture that included his fellow classmates, Win drew a landscape in which the entire class met some terrible end—some in the bellies of beasts, some strangled by jungle vines, others cooked by natives. In his defense, he included himself in the slaughter, and the tigers devouring the Thomas twins were wonderfully rendered. Less than a month ago, he was sent to the hospital to have his stomach pumped after overdosing on Flintstone vitamins. When asked, he said he was trying to see how yellow he could make his pee. It was pretty damn yellow. I love my son for these things. Even told him in secret what I thought about those tigers.
After Win was born, I moved my family out of Birmingham, to the outskirts of the city’s suburbs. We live now in a gated community—Lakeside Banks, which makes no sense, because the nearest body of water that could reasonably be termed a lake is 45 minutes away. The house is a Colonial that stands at attention among others of its ilk, bivouacked in the basin of two hills. At the time, I worked as a real-estate agent. Still do, in fact. I scouted, appraised, financed, and sealed the deal. Over the next two years, I spent every weekend adding accessories—a Tahitian-themed patio and an above-ground pool. Sundials and a grape arbor. I even put in an herb garden just under the kitchen window, which is now tended by the neighborhood gardener, Barry, a 16-year-old who drives in from the other side of the city every other weekday. Ten years ago I bought this house because it was the kind of place where I wanted to raise a family—the front looking out on a neighborhood of ticking sprinklers and houses with unlocked doors, the back giving way to brier-snarled pastures. It was perfect.
Charli walks out of the kitchen yelling Win’s name up the stairs, and I’m left standing in that same house, the kitchen done in what my wife calls English countryside. Everything is heather purple. He was born six pounds, nine ounces. His hand gripped the tip of my finger when I held him. Kissing boys! I find myself wondering if I should have expected this, prepared for it—like the possibility of syringes in his dresser drawer, clipped pictures of porn secreted between the pages of his Hardy Boys collection. This may have been partially my fault. I encouraged him to read. I can hear Win’s sneakers pounding overhead, and I panic. I try to think back to the child-rearing books I read when we were sure Charli was pregnant. All I can dredge up are the symptoms for colic and the importance of nipple sterilization.
My wife reenters the kitchen, and Win is right on her heels. He takes a running slide across the kitchen floor. Gustav, our St. Bernard, comes around the corner like a furry tank and pounces as Charli’s voice rises above the din.
“Win, can you stop for a second? We need to talk to you.”
Win stops, takes a seat cross-legged on the floor. Gustav nudges around him, his tail sweeping the top of Win’s head. Win jabs him in the side with his elbow, and Gustav grunts in acknowledgment of the gesture, flops down behind Win, who leans back into the cushion of fur and muscle. Our son scratches a knee threaded with thin, white scars, and proceeds to appear bored.
He looks every inch the classic American boy. Blond hair, blue eyes. I’m talking Tom Sawyer covered in white paint, Dennis with his slingshot. The truth is, I don’t think of myself as a very good parent. There’s a part of me that never wants to touch my son. I was raised a military brat on bases from New Mexico to South Carolina. I have no sense of stability, although I crave it like my wife now craves pimento. My father spoke over my head, dictating his commands to me through my mother: “The boy needs to be washed, Margaret.” When Win was six and took black permanent marker to the walls of the kitchen, instead of popping him one, Charli went out and bought frames, took the backs out, and hung them over what was now termed our son’s first efforts at artistic expression.
My wife decides to take a similar approach now. “Sweetie. You know your teacher called me today?” She smiles around every word.
Win wrinkles his nose. “You mean Mrs. Milk Carton? She smells like dumpster milk.”
“Mrs. Molkinson says you’ve been kissing boys on the playground. Is this true?”
“Not all of them.” Win raises a hand and begins counting on his fingers. “Just Tyler and Jesse and Clint. They’re my best friends.”
“Why are you kissing them?” I ask. My voice has a “tone” to it. I know because my wife says, “Bring it down a notch, Warren.”
I cross my arms. There’s a moment when no one says anything. Charli presses her lips together till they nearly disappear. I can’t help it. It’s not that I think this is anything serious, but you never know. The world is a cruel place, and sometimes it’s important to follow well-worn paths. I tell myself, it’s for his own good. His protection.
“Why are you kissing boys?” I repeat, trying to mimic my former “tone” to the last register.
Win looks confused. “Because they’re my friends.”
“Aren’t there any girls that you’re friends with?” I ask.
“Tyler doesn’t care. He lets me do it.”
At this point, I’ve had enough. My voice rises and Win jumps. “Look, just don’t do it anymore. Boys do not kiss other boys. Period.”
“No. This is nonsense.” I point a finger at Win. “Just stop it. Do you understand?”
Win looks from one of us to the other. He scratches under the camouflage handkerchief he has tied around his head, one corner of which hangs down over his left eye. On his arm are the last flaky remains of a stick-on tattoo that Win’s grandfather gave him on his last visit. The skull’s still there, but the crossbones are long gone.
Win looks down at the floor and says under his breath, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like we use tongue.”
With that, something inside me is cut down to a size barely large enough to see. I stare at Win. I had convinced myself that Win could never surprise me. When he was six, there came the period when he picked up everything without question—lizards, cigarette butts, petrified bubblegum, pennies, mushrooms, old bones Gustav brought into the yard, grass spiders. He would come in from outside with his pockets stuffed with gravel. Kids were like that. No surprises. Now he knew what people did with tongues, and he was only 10. What more could he pick up? What had he picked up already?
“Can I go?” Win asks.
My wife answers before I’m able. “Sure, honey.” Charli moves to touch his hair, but Win ducks under her arm. “Your father and I need to talk anyway.”
Win stands up in a rush to be gone, but then pauses. “Are you going to talk about me when I leave?”
“Of course not. Everything’s all right.”
Win looks at me, questioning, and I send him off with a wave of my hand. He puts his fingers to his lips and whistles piercingly, a trick I taught him, causing Gustav to bound up and after him. The screen door slams behind them.
“Well, that went well,” Charli says after Win exits. “But then again, he’ll need something to talk about during therapy.”
“It’s better this way,” I say. “The world isn’t always as understanding as you.”
“You mean ‘us.’” Charli has a way of correcting people that makes it obvious how she earns a living.
Through the window over the sink, I see Win jump over Gustav’s back, coming down in a tumble. He’s in pursuit of the gardener, Barry, who beckons him forward with garden shears. Barry’s one of those guys whose abuses—unwashed hair, fair skin long marred and reddened by the sun, the nicotine stains around his teeth—will not carry well into middle age. For now he’s what Charli has unoriginally called a “heartbreaker.” Win has a wooden sword, which he brandishes over his head, and I see him mouth what I think is the word ‘Charge!’ Barry makes as if to defend himself with the garden shears, but he goes down under the weight of Gustav.
“Don’t work yourself into a state about this, Warren. Everything will be fine.”
I nod as Charli presses her cheek against my shoulder, rubbing off the stress of that day on my shirt. She asks, “What are you thinking about?”
I’m going over tactics, stratagems of attack, ways to root out the infidels. I’m wondering how old your son has to be before it’s socially acceptable to take him to a strip club. Should I explain to him how sex works, where babies come from, or does he already know?
But I don’t tell her this. “I’m thinking I need to spend more time with my son.”
“Good idea. You’re not going to do anything stupid are you?”
“No,” I say.
What’s one little lie in the total account of a marriage?
I begin to spy on Win. It’s easier than it looks on television and in the movies. Anticipation is the ticket. Knowing where the mark is headed before he does. There are certain rules to follow. Techniques. Never trail too close. Be aware of others. Stay downwind of dogs. Adopting ninja-like moves often ends in a twisted ankle. Those are the basics.
I do reconnaissance work at the dinner table. “So, how is school?” I ask.
“Fine,” Win says.
“You haven’t kissed anyone in the last few days, have you?”
Charli gives me a withering look over a slice of veal piccata. She knows my game and isn’t amused. She mouths the words “Grow up” at me from across the table.
“That’s great, little man.”
“Don’t call me that, please.”
“Don’t call you what? Little man? What’s wrong with that?”
Win’s face goes red, as if I’ve caught him in something embarrassing. “I don’t like it.” And with that, he picks up his plate, slides off his chair, and heads for the kitchen. Charli yells after him. “Be sure to put your plate in the sink, and be back before dark if you’re going out to play.” Win answers her with, “Roger, Mom.”
Since Win’s revelation, there has been one thing I have wanted to curb. His freedom. I don’t want our house to seem like a Russian gulag, but of late, I’ve noticed the license we give Win. The families in Lakewood Banks, who are all parents and under 40, like to think of themselves as unburdened. That is one of the selling points my company highlights in the brochure. No one locks their doors. If Win cuts his leg on something, he’s just as likely to stop at a neighbor’s for a Band-Aid as he is to come home. The streets, which sometimes do not see a car for hours on end, are well-lit—all the way up to the unfinished houses at the complex’s summit. Construction of those houses had been started over a year ago by a contracting firm in the city and then abandoned after the company went bankrupt and was accused of fraud. Through that silence, Win wanders, disappearing for hours in the woods behind the hill, playing on the swing sets of whatever family he is closest to. Oddly, being one of the oldest kids in the neighborhood by a good four or five years, he tends to roam alone. Mostly, he follows Barry around, helping him carry his tools and laying bricks around the borders of dahlias.
“You know we should really pay more attention to where Win goes,” I tell my wife.
“That never bothered you before.”
“All I’m saying is that Win could benefit from a little more structure in his life.”
“Oh, poppycock. Do you really think keeping Win under lock and key is going to change anything? And yes, I said ‘poppycock.’”
I glare at her from the other end of the table. “You know if your veal were half as salty as your humor, this meal might not be half bad.”
“Salt is bad for the baby,” Charli says, raising her half-glass of Chardonnay. Charli had read years ago in an article in Newsweek that half a glass of wine at dinner during the extent of the pregnancy was actually good for the baby. She had adopted these words of wisdom to the letter.
Even though I hate to admit it, Charli’s right. I learn more about Win in his element. The first few days, I take off early from work. I leave the car in the garage of one of Jenowith, Jenowith and Spitz’s properties just half a mile down the road and follow Win when he comes in from school. It’s possible to hear the bus trundling down the blacktop from a mile off, and I wait for it behind a toolshed at the Gibson’s house. As it slows at the curb of the community road, sunlight arcs off the yellow paint and chrome, and a handful of children race down the steps after the gasp of the door’s mechanism releases them. They scatter. I keep a safe distance from Win. On a day-to-day basis, Win mostly explores, and I begin to remember my own youth when every corner, hidey-hole, and shaded place grew pregnant with mystery and novelty. Win knows the neighborhood, the network of drainage tunnels. I watch him slink through these ditches, ducking his head under the corrugated steel, only to emerge on the far side with wet shoes and cobwebs in his hair. He knows what to pull in the field to bring up wild onions—how to use the stalks to bring up chicken-chokers from the dirt. He knows what to poke—holes, dead birds, dirt dauber nests. What to tug—milkweed pods, grapevines, burs. I can’t recall teaching him any of this, but it’s as if my memories, coded into genes, neurons, dna loops, had passed on to him—as if he walked the world not as a stranger, but as an old friend.
The thing that I’m most disturbed with is Win’s own efforts at surveillance. He tails the younger kids in the neighborhood, picking them off silently with his AK-47 from the lengthening shadows. He’s certainly not kissing any of them. I’ve even caught him peering greedily through shaded curtains, over patio decks, into the interiors of our neighbors’ homes. Watching them eat, breathe, live.
Gradually, I realize I’m green with something. I want to think it’s nostalgia, but truth be known, it’s probably closer to resentment. After a week of this, I realize how little of my son’s education has come from me. He knows more about his place—this neighborhood—than I can imagine. It’s a knowledge all his own. He comes home with it grimed under the nails of his fingers. The scent of it is in his hair, on his clothes, and, until now, I never suspected a thing.
Most days Win follows Barry. I’m usually too far away to hear their conversations, but today I’m lucky. From the cover of Dink Thompson’s storage shed, I watch them rig a trellis to the back of Dink’s house. Dink’s wife recently left him—taking herself, the kids, and her fervor for roses with her—so I have no idea why this chore continues, but it’s not my job to wonder such things.
Win sits cross-legged in the grass. He has the tools they need spread out in front of him—hammer, screwdriver, posthole digger. Barry’s positioning the trellis against the house, trying to center it between and under the two upstairs windows. He takes a pencil from behind his ear and makes a mark. Barry is shirtless. He wears a cap turned backwards, and tufts of his hair stick out from under the edges. A half-assed version of a moustache rests atop his upper lip. Truth is I don’t know much about Barry, except that he doesn’t live in Lakewood, but you can tell that by looking at him. He has a cocky, pissant way about him.
Barry turns and asks for the hole digger, and Win picks it up and takes it to him. I notice Win has Barry’s shirt draped around his neck.
“Thank you, little man.”
Win returns to his place in the grass and sits with his elbows on his knees, watching Barry dig.
“You know what I think? Roses are a real bitch.” Barry looks over at Win, who nods in complicity, but looks around to see who’s listening all the same. “I don’t like anything that has to be taught how to grow. You know how to grow. Right, little man?”
Win nods but looks unsure of himself. Barry winks and answers for him. “I bet you do.” He laughs in a way that’s fake and high-pitched—as if he’s high on something. Barry inserts the bottom of the trellis into the hole he’s just dug. He holds it against the house, looking up, and then repositions the splayed limbs. “Hand me the hammer, will you?”
Win takes the hammer to Barry and stands beside him with his shoulder to the side of the house. He leans there and looks up at Barry’s work.
“So what’s new with you, little man? Whip anybody’s ass yet?”
“No,” Win says.
“Made kissy face with any young ladies? I bet you’re a real Casanova.”
Win wrinkles his nose in answer.
“No? Can’t blame you there. I would have pegged you as a top dog for sure though. You got time. Don’t worry about it. Walk before you run, as they say. Just remember the clitoris.”
“What’s that?” Win asks.
Barry raps on the side of the house with the hammer. “Hell if I know. That’s what my mother told me when I was your age. Odds are she was drunk.” Barry reaches out and tousles Win’s hair, but hard and rough, nearly sending Win to the ground. Win grabs his wrist and pushes it away, but he’s smiling. “Come to think of it, forget the clitoris. It’s not that important. Just point it south and look for a warm spot.”
“I bet I could whip your ass,” Win says, the last word coming out bold and yet hesitant at the same time.
Without answering the challenge, Barry bends and grabs Win just below the knees. Win yelps as Barry swings him up and places him across his shoulders. Win struggles. He even lashes at Barry’s back with Barry’s own shirt, but you can tell he’s tickled pink. Barry carries him over to a shady spot and drops the two of them on the lawn. Win tumbles and rolls, picking up grass stains I know Charli’s going to love. Barry takes out a cigarette and lights it as Win lays back with his arms behind his head, his eyes never leaving Barry for a second. Watching them, I’m not sure if I should think of Barry as a role model or a bad influence. I can’t help wondering what Win thinks about as he stares at Barry. Does he wonder what high school’s like? Does he hope that one day he’ll be able to speak with the kind of security and ease Barry has cultivated? When he’ll get hair on his chest and face and underarms?
I try to ascertain where Win’s eyes rest, but it’s anybody’s guess.
After a moment of silence, Win points up at Barry’s cigarette. “Can I do that?”
Barry closes his eyes and shakes his head. “No, little man. You don’t want these.”
“They’ll stunt your growth.” Barry takes Win’s arm and circles his bicep with thumb and forefinger, offering it up for Win to see. Then he makes a bicep himself for comparison. “And you’ve got a lot of growing to do before you can whip me. You don’t want any handicaps.”
Barry finishes his cigarette and tosses the butt into the grass. “Time to go fertilize,” he says, heading back toward the array of tools. Win grabs the cigarette butt and places it in his pocket before following. Then they load the tools onto their shoulders, Barry taking most of them and giving Win the little stuff. The two of them disappear around the corner of Dink’s house.
I watch them until they disappear, letting my muscles unknot in the process. I get the sense that I’ve witnessed something intimate and complex. It isn’t the crudeness of the conversation. Nothing like that at all. It has to do with Win and the way he holds his breath around Barry. I know that is something I was never meant to see and, if Win knew, would never forgive. It’s a feeling that lasts for a second and then is gone. He’s my son, for Christ’s sake. If anyone gets to talk to him about clitorises, it should be me, although the thought of that makes me crave a stiff drink.
Barry could be the best thing for Win—but then again, I can’t help but think of Win’s face, his expression one of utter devotion. Definitely a bad influence. I ponder the matter in the dimness of Dink’s workshop, while a wasp buzzes irritably against the timbers above my head.
Two days later, I catch Win pilfering food. I had noticed the day before that he was taking more fruit than normal—an apple in each pocket of his oversized jeans, an orange from the white bowl on the kitchen table. Win hates fruit, which has to be one of God’s greatest ironies, but I saw it with my own eyes while peeking through the posts of the banister. The next evening at dinner, I see a pork chop glide under the table, and just when I’m about to let him know that I don’t want to have to tell him again about feeding Gustav from his plate, the chop disappears in the pouch of his hooded pullover.
He’s smooth. Through the rest of dinner, he sits composed as the warm meat no doubt soaks into the cotton. What’s more, three stewed potatoes get wrapped in a napkin and join the chop, all while Win is having a conversation with Charli about science class.
“So you say she had a fetal pig in a jar?” Charli asks. She has a bemused expression, her chin resting on her hand, her half glass of wine held aloft and lightly tapping her cheek.
“No, it hadn’t been born yet,” Win says.
“That’s what fetal means.”
“Oh. It was awesome. She had it in this jar of pinkish, blood water, and its mouth was open like this.” This is when Win, his mouth hung open like some zombie in a B-movie, his mother’s complete attention upon his face, slips the potatoes under the table. Smooth. Perfect. In another life, he could have been a guttersnipe on the streets of London, lifting farthings from the pockets of the lawful.
Win continues, but on a different track. “Is that what my baby sister looks like?” He’s that good.
Charli sniggers into her wineglass and then wipes her chin with the back of her hand. “Of course not. Your sister is very peaceful. Want to feel?” Charli takes Win’s hand and places it over her stomach and leaves it there, and I can see Win, like me, is wondering what this is supposed to prove. Like a good son, he waits a few beats before he asks if he can be excused.
Charli says okay and lets him go as she begins gathering up dishes from the table. I wait exactly a minute, and then I follow Win out into the autumn twilight. The night is warm, and there’s a harvest moon that’s rising—huge and claret. From where I’m standing on the back patio, I can see Win’s shadow running ahead of him on the street, his hands gripped in the front of his pullover, his pockets bouncing with hidden bounty. I hear Gustav whine and scratch at the door behind me, and I realize Win didn’t take him out. Before me the night is massive and familiar, and as I step into it, skirting the pools of light in favor of the deeper shadows, I mimic my son’s quiet footfalls down Indian trails, past dangers too monstrous to imagine.
I follow Win to one of the unfinished houses on the hill—the last one on the street, a good 300 yards from the curious eye of any window. The night, thankfully, is anything but quiet. The leaves clinging to the trees rustle—their sound building in the upper air. The house appears to breathe—the plastic stapled to the windows has long since torn loose, and the sheets waving in the wind make the place look eerie.
From farther down the hill, I see Win turn just before entering the open door. I duck down as Win seems to test the air, peering about into the darkness, which is lit by an almost underwater luminescence. Satisfied, he turns, pulls the plastic aside, and goes on in. I crawl the rest of the way up the hill, the front of my shirt soaked to the skin. When I approach the front of the house, I hear what sounds like conversation coming from inside. I pause, listening to the voices, and one is definitely not Win’s. I raise up on my haunches and light-step it, doubled over, to what would have been the living room window. There’s a mound of loose gravel shining in the moonlight, and as I crouch down between it and the glassless window, I peer in around the sheet of plastic, steeling myself for anything.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust, but inside I see Win sitting on the bare wood floor. He takes out what I imagine is the food he stole, and hands it over to someone stretched out on the floor in front of him.
“Aw, little man. You did good,” the shadowy figure says, and I place the voice. Slowly, I begin to make out his features—the white of the forearm bracing his head, the bulkiness of his coat. He’s lying on a sleeping bag, and there are other odd shapes strewn about him—a backpack, a radio with its rabbit ears glinting, a white T-shirt wadded and crumpled on the floor like the remains of a murdered ghost.
“You got anything else?” Barry raises up and flicks something in his hand, and suddenly there’s a tiny light seeping from between his fingers. Barry lights a cigarette as Win digs into his pockets. He produces a can of Sprite, an orange, and a half-eaten bag of Rollos before the light disappears.
“Is that good?” Win asks.
“I think it hits four of the major food groups, which does me just fine,” Barry says. “Anyone see you come out here?”
Win shakes his head. “Nope, I’m a ninja guardian.” He says this with such solemnity it’s hard not to let him break my heart. Barry’s grin is white in the dark.
“What are your parents doing?”
“I don’t know.”
There’s a pause as Barry finishes his cigarette. Then there’s the sound of Barry’s teeth clicking against the bone of the pork chop. I hear the air escape from the can of soda. And through it all, I watch Win as Win watches Barry. My son sits rigid, as if something were barely contained beneath his skin—anticipation, excitement, the thrill of secrecy.
“You learn anything in school today, little man?” Barry asks as he leans back on his elbows, peeling an orange in his hands. I catch the smell of it on the breeze that traverses the place.
“No. The teacher brought in a fetal pig. But it was stupid.”
“You cut it open? Dissect it?”
“No.” There’s something hung up in Win’s voice, as if what he were going to say were caught on thorns and nettles. “The kids made fun of me because I wouldn’t come up to the table to look at it. They said I was faggy.”
“Well, why wouldn’t you go up to it? It’s just a pig.”
Win doesn’t answer, and Barry begins feeding himself orange slices.
“My Mom’s pregnant. So I guess she’s got a fetal Mia inside of her.”
“I guess she does. Is she all swole up?”
“Yeah. She’s mega-fat. She can block the whole TV.”
Barry whistles, the sound almost natural in the darkened house, like a bird that’s nested in the eaves. “Little man, you don’t know how swell you got it. I’d kill for a TV right now. You ever see that old show The Fugitive?” Win shakes his head. “It was a show from the ’60s. It got rerun a lot when I was your age. It had this guy in it named Richard Kimble, who is accused of killing his wife. But he didn’t do it. He was framed or some bullshit. And in the beginning he’s being taken by train to his death. The opening voice over says, ‘Fate moves its huge hand,’ and there’s this train wreck and Kimble’s handcuffs are severed and boom. He’s running.”
Win scoots closer to Barry, his crossed legs nearly touching Barry’s thigh.
“What happened to him,” Win asks.
“He just keeps running. That’s how I’m going to be. I’m leaving soon.” Barry kicks Win lightly with the tip of his shoe.
“I’m coming with you,” Win says, and there’s something in his voice that startles me, and Barry too, I think, because he goes quiet for a second. It’s as if the decision behind Win’s voice is so much older than his years. As if it were only right that he should go.
“You don’t want to go with me,” Barry says.
“Yes, I do. Please.”
“Who’s going to help your mom out, take care of your sister and all that shit?”
“I don’t know.”
Barry lights another cigarette and takes a long drag off it. The ember burns bright for an instant, lighting the small space between the two of them.
“You want to know a secret, little man? I lied to you when I told you my mom took off. I’m sorry I did that. Truth is, she’s dead.”
Win’s question is faint, whispered for their ears only, but I hear it too. “How’d she die?”
“When I found her, she was blue. In the bathtub. Apparently, those public service announcements were right. Drugs do kill. Anyway, I didn’t stick around. I figured the neighbors would find her. That’s what makes me a fugitive. You have to have something horrible to run from, or your heart’s not in it. What do you got to run from, little man?”
Suddenly, I remember Win’s description of that pink-bloody water with the failure inside, and I know, without knowing how I know, that he’s thinking of the same thing. “I’m not scared of anything.” Win’s voice is fierce and petulant.
“Except baby pigs?”
Win doesn’t answer.
“That’s okay, little man. Dead things in water creep me out too.”
Barry stretches, putting his arms behind his neck. He lays out across the sleeping bag, arching his back as if the position were painful. He finishes his cigarette in silence.
“Well, it’s about time for me to be sleeping. And you better be getting back. We don’t want your parents to come looking for you.”
“Can I stay a little longer?”
“What you going to do, watch me sleep?”
“I’ll lie down too. I won’t say anything.”
Barry shifts onto his side, and there’s a moment when I think he’s losing patience with Win, but then I hear him snort. He leans toward Win. “You don’t want me to get caught, do you? Then you wouldn’t be my little partner in crime anymore.”
What happens next isn’t perfectly clear, seeing as it is dark and the floating plastic makes strange shadows on the walls, but I know Win leans forward swiftly, almost darting, and I hear what sounds like his lips connecting with something in the dark, but softly, confidentially, in a way that seems impossible, given the abandon and acuteness of his movements. Then like that, it’s over. My boy has stolen a kiss.
When Barry speaks, his tone is hushed, as if the room has suddenly been filled with eyes—the spirits of all the families who would never call this place a home.
“What was that, little man?”
“I was just kissing you goodnight. Is that okay?”
“I forget how young you are sometimes,” Barry says.
There’s a moment when all I hear is the scuttle of dead leaves across the floor of the living room, then Win asks, “You won’t tell anyone will you?”
“That’s usually my question, little man. You don’t have to worry about me.” There’s a tentativeness to Barry’s voice, as if he senses that he’s on dangerous ground.
“Okay. Goodnight,” Win says. He jumps up and his steps suddenly echo through the ribs of the house. He sails through the plastic covering the front door before I even have time to piss myself, but my concern is needless. Win hits the ground running, and he’s pushing himself as fast as he can go. When he hits the asphalt, his sneakers create a steady tempo through the lights that stay on for safety, and then he’s gone.
I sit down in the grass with my back to the foundation, and wait for something—I’m not quite sure what. I hear Barry turning over on the floor inside, bedding down for the night. He coughs a few times, and then he’s still. But I wonder if he can sleep. If his heart is hammering in his chest the way it’s hammering in mine.
I’m not proud of what happens next, but it happens all the same. After that night when I hear Win kiss the gardener, I call Child Services. They show up the next day with the police in tow. They find Barry’s stuff in the abandoned house. They had found Barry’s mother, dead of an overdose, two weeks prior. They had been searching for Barry ever since, but there were no employment records, since his pay at Lakewood was under the table, and no one in his neighborhood seemed to care much about Barry’s comings and goings. When they stopped seeing him, they probably thought he’d had enough of his mother’s shit and took off.
The police lead Barry away from his hideout in handcuffs. Apparently he had resisted. It’s a Saturday, and the entire neighborhood is at home. They come out in bunches onto their lawns to watch as one of the cops puts Barry in the back of the patrol car. Another cop goes through Barry’s backpack, placing each item on the car’s trunk. They take out several changes of clothes, a small radio, a jacket, a couple of ragged magazines, an empty cigarette pack, and some orange rinds.
I scan the street for Win, trying to see if he is anywhere about—if he is watching. I ask Charli, who is standing beside me in her yellow robe, her hands pulling at the sash, if she knows where he is. “The last place I saw him was out back with Gustav.” I walk to the edge of the street to get a better view of things. One of the cops eyes me as if I’m going to do something stupid, like try to bust someone out of a squad car.
Just when I begin to think Win has missed the whole thing, just as the patrol car is pulling away with Barry in it, I see him. He’s standing on the side of the hill watching from above. Gustav is curled around his feet, his tongue dipping in the dirt. Win is holding his wooden sword. I raise my hand over my head and call out to him, and his gaze shifts from the departing car to me. There’s this moment when the two of us are looking right at each other, but Win makes no gesture. He yells nothing back. My hand drops to my side, and I see Win turn and head toward the unfinished house—Barry’s house. As he moves through the high grass, he slashes at it with his sword.
Charli comes up behind me and presses her stomach against the small of my back. “Go talk to him,” she says. “He thought a lot of Barry, you know.”
I find Win on the hill in front of the unfinished house, in an empty dishwasher box that he’s somehow uprighted with him inside. I walk up and stand beside the box, but Win doesn’t acknowledge my presence. He’s sawing one of the cardboard flaps with his sword.
“What’re you doing?” I ask.
“I came to talk to you, little man. Your mother’s worried about you.”
“I can’t hear you,” Win says. “You’re outside the fort.”
I stand by for a second, confounded by this unforeseen obstacle. “Can I come in?”
Win shrugs his shoulders, sits down, and proceeds to pick burs out of his socks.
“I’d really like to see the inside of your fort.”
Win sighs and then gets back up. He pushes on the box until it crashes to its side. “Get in,” he says. So, I get down on my hands and knees and crawl into the box. The air inside is hot, and the box is filled with the scent of Win’s sweat and body heat. “Help me raise the drawbridge,” Win instructs, and he crawls to the bottom and begins to push. I help him and we both tumble over as the box rights itself with us inside. It’s a tight fit, with Win practically in my lap, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“This is a nice fort. Where’d you get it?”
“Oh,” I say, not sure how to proceed. I decide the best route is a direct one. “So, I guess you saw them take Barry away?”
Win nods, but keeps his head down. He picks a bur from his sock and tosses it into my lap. I continue. “Your mother mentioned that the two of you were sort of friends.” Win doesn’t give an inch. “You know it’s not your fault.” After I’ve said it, I realize how ridiculous I sound, like the star of some Lifetime movie taking on the role of reason and good judgment.
“Why did they take him away?”
“Win, he’s 16. He’s not old enough to be out on his own. Not just yet, anyway. Not till he’s 18, which can’t be too long.”
“He could have stayed with us. I could have taken care of him.”
“I know, but that’s not how things work.”
“Will he come and see me?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it. I’m sorry.” Win scrunches his nose up, and I can tell he’s fighting back something. I realize how hard it must be for him, trying to understand what has happened. What it is that he’s feeling. There is so much of my son’s life that I have no part in—that is unreachable, as if it were a fortress barred against me. I realize he will never tell me about what happened that night in the house, about what he was thinking as he watched Barry eat what he had taken for him. And at that moment Win looks up, and I try to catch a glimpse of myself in that face—in the architecture of his features, the pallor of his skin, his eyes, the streaks of sweat descending out of his mop of hair. I can’t find it, the legacy of myself, and I don’t know if that is cause to weep or rejoice.
“You really liked him, didn’t you?” I ask.
Win looks right through me, his eyes focusing on a scene far away, and I imagine what he is seeing—Win and Barry running through swamp water up to their ankles, the hounds baying in the distance, the smoke of a lone house approaching. There’s a harmonica playing. Light from a fire dances in the corner of a room.
“I’m not going to kiss any more boys, Dad. I promise.”
“Oh, really? That’s good. Why’d you decide that?”
“Because I kissed Barry, and they took him away.”
I trace the roots of Win’s fears, and I realize the legacy I have left him with is this—the dangers of a kiss. The way it sets things in motion. Its destructive potential. Its furious insistence. Its cold, hard, impervious intimacy. He will always, in this devastated world, be trying to perfect that simplest of acts, and there is nothing I, or anyone else, can do to protect him from this.
So I lie to him. I grip his tiny knee in my palm. “It wasn’t your fault Barry got sent away, Win. He just got a crappy deal this time around. That’s all.”
Win’s eyes go wide at my touch. His neck goes scarlet at the collar, and suddenly it’s as if we shake something off, as if the seriousness of the conversation had gone too deep, touched something sheepish and nervous in us both.
Win raps a knuckle against the cardboard above his head, filling the silence of the tiny space. “You want to play siege?” Win asks. His eyes are suddenly brighter, charged with the impishness that I’m accustomed to.
“Sure. How do we play?”
Win crawls over me to the side of the box that’s facing the slope of the hill. He places his hands onto the cardboard. “Help me push the box on its side,” Win says. We push until the box turns over, then I lay back with my feet hanging out of the top. Win kneels beside me and leans over my stomach, his hands again splayed out on the cardboard. “Now we push it down the hill.”
“With us inside?”
“Does your mother know you do this?”
Win gives me a look, and without waiting for an answer, I nod and brace my back against the box, sensing the steep descent on the other side. “Are you ready?” Win asks.
“Count of three. One. Two. Three.”
We push together, and the box starts to tumble. Win flips over my chest with me following after, and it’s all I can do not to crush him in the mad tumult. I land on my wrist the wrong way and I hear a pop. My body keeps crashing, thudding into the ground. There’s a ringing in my ears, an avalanche descending through my head, and through it all, Win is tossed around, slamming into me, our heads butting, teeth jarring, and I’m trying desperately to protect him, to shield him from the sheer weight of myself.
All the while, Win is laughing, enjoying the risk.
The box is coming apart. I see sky, then grass, then ground. Small rocks have found their way inside and are spinning about our heads. The violence of the world is all around us—like celestial bodies pulled by the mass of one another, slammed like pinballs into detritus and dust. I feel it choking me—filling my mouth and nose. I feel it scrape away skin, nick my ears. My muscles bunch and knot from the effort, trying to control this fool’s rush. My arms snake out, grab for my son, and I have him. I pull Win to my chest and all of a sudden there’s balance—the two of us held in one reckless arc. And we keep it, this equilibrium—this poise, spinning one with the other, Win cradled in my arms, until the broken world loses momentum. Until the sky stops being the ground—until our faces cease to be moons, and everything, I mean everything, comes to rest.
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