A June bug buzzed and spun on its back under the car I was hiding behind, then flipped itself upright and flew smack into the radiator grill of a Greyhound bus parked at the station across the street. Dumb bugs. Why did they even exist? And what was this one doing in a parking lot in the middle of Worcester? Back home in Rutland they made kamikaze runs at the lightbulbs in our garage, bouncing off the top of Ma’s car and hurling themselves at the window screens, not knowing what they were doing, made nuts by the light they wanted. But who was I to talk? There I was hiding behind a car, waiting for my brother Matt to pick me up—on the day before he shot the foreman of the New Hampshire crew in the leg—keeping a tense, combat-ready watch over the men’s room door, which I could still see through the tall tinted windows of the station. I’d pissed down one pant-leg running out of there, and it was sticky and warm and burned my skin when I rubbed my crotch to dry it.
A little rain had fallen, and a thick, dusty vapor smell came off the asphalt, making me feel like my hair was electrified. I looked back through the tall tinted windows, thinking I’d missed seeing the red-haired creep come out of the men’s room because I’d been watching that June bug. Boy, I hoped Matt would show up soon. I’d just spent three days in Boston with our cousin Ted, my first trip there alone, and I was sick of all the people. I just wanted to settle into the summer in the woods and ponds around Rutland and get my lawn mowing business going so I could buy a Honda 125 for fall when I started High School.
When Matt finally showed up, I ran around the side of the station and banged on his truck door before he even had a chance to park. The red-haired creep never came out of the men’s room.
“Jesus H, little man,” Matt said as I jumped up into the cab. “Are you just happy to see me or did Teddy try to grease your butthole?” Matt laughed and ground his old flatbed into reverse. “Hey, you all right, Jack?”
“I left my bag.”
“Go get it, man. Let’s get out of here.”
“It’s in the station,” I said.
Matt looked at the station as if I’d just told him it wasn’t there. I was so glad to see him, I didn’t care if I was being a jerk.
Matt looks just like Steve McQueen.
“Isn’t that the station,” Matt said. “That huge building right in front of us?”
“I asked that lady with the stuck up black hair to watch it while I took a pee. See her?”
“Piss, Jack. You took a piss.”
“See, she’s right next to the pay TV chair, next to that retard guy with the runty dog.”
“You gonna let her keep it, Jack? Was that part of the deal?”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t proud of it, but I wasn’t going back in there.
“Come on, Jack. Go get your dumb bag.”
Matt jumped out of the truck slamming the door behind him. The truck idled hard, the Budweiser tap gear shift jerking around, and I had a feeling the truck was going to take off by itself and I would have to explain that one to Matt.
Matt stood by the lady and pointed at me. She squinted in my direction, then turned back toward Matt and shook her head. Matt held his hands out, talking to her like he was calming her down, or calming himself down, and when she shook her head again Matt reached down fast for my bag. She followed him to the door, shaking her fist and talking at him, and Matt pushed the door open with his foot and let it swing back in the lady’s face.
He threw the bag in at me through the window and slapped the hood, Ka-bang, as he walked around to the driver’s side and jumped in putting the truck in gear in one graceful, pissed-off motion. I watched his hand on the Budweiser tap—it was worse, all swollen and purple, the skin peeling away in the palm where the stitches had been.
Matt looked in the rear view mirror and said, “Whatta bunch a fuckin’ nut cases,” then he drove over the sidewalk getting out of the parking lot, saying, Shithole Town to no one as we headed toward the on-ramp.
When we got on 290, Matt asked me how Bean Town was. I was relieved he’d decided to forget about the bag business.
“I’m gonna move there,” I shouted.
The windows were open and the truck had a busted muffler.
“I said, I’m gonna move there and Ted and I are going to sit around and drink coffee and be intellectuals!” I sounded kinda dumb shouting it.
Matt laughed so hard the veins across his temples stuck out and his forehead got red. His eyes were more bloodshot than usual, and when he laughed like that he kept his mouth open so wide you could see the silver fillings in his molars. He slapped the dash so hard laughing that a few pieces where it was dried and cracked from the sun leaped up and flipped over like a puzzle he’d given up on. He braked for no reason, then jerked forward, and a bunch of beer bottles came clinking out from under the seat and back again. I wasn’t really trying to be funny. Sometimes it seemed like Matt had more energy than was good for one person.
“Can’t get used to you growing up, little man,” Matt said. “Pretty soon you’ll be hiring me and Drez to renovate your brownstone.”
I knew he was shitting me, but I had to stay serious.
“Yeah, I’ve decided to make art too. Not Ted’s sculpture stuff, but some art. I don’t know yet. But I know it’s all the same in some way and just a secret you have to know about.”
Matt was quiet. I didn’t usually talk to him that way.
Matt said, “That queer really brain-washed you.”
“Ted knows what he’s talking about,” I said.
“Ted is a fuckin’ pussy. Guys who are smart and pussies are just tricky and clever and they need to live in cities so they never get a good look at themselves.”
“I think you’re wrong about Ted, Matt. He’s a real artist. I saw how other people see him. He’s tough in a different way.”
“What Ted is is a real faggot.”
I stared out the window. The Polar soda factory went by. I couldn’t beat Matt at this.
“Hey, I’m sorry, Jack. I think it’s good you went to Boston, good Ted showed you that stuff. Ma’s gonna be happy you liked it.”
Matt down-shifted to pass a car and I watched the hand again. Why didn’t it heal? They had to pull nerve wires out of his arm to rebuild the hand, pull them right out like a Mickey Mouse wiring job, Matt said.
Matt had balls.
Ted could maybe talk circles around him, but Matt would have cracked that red-haired creep in the face, not run away pissing his pants. Art and balls—they were the two things I admired most, only I was noticing they didn’t go together too well. It was hard to imagine Ted in the truck or Matt in the art place, but here I was being able to be in both places, like I could be Matt or Ted, so why couldn’t they do the same?
I stuck my head out the window and howled like a dog, getting a laugh out of Matt, then I pulled my head in and stuck my hand out, making it dive and bank with just a slight turn of the wrist. The wind was warm and powerful, and there was the whole summer ahead. I didn’t want to ruin it feeling split up, but I couldn’t stop worrying about everything. I worried because Matt didn’t like Ted, I worried about Matt because Ma cared so much about him but still made him live out in the tool shed, and I worried about Ma because she was getting serious about this new boyfriend, Dick Buttram, a guy who owned hotels and apartments and had a face like an old lizard. The only good thing about Buttram was that he had money. He took us on ski trips up north and Utah once, but you could tell he did it to impress Ma. She’d gone out with three guys since our Dad died, all of them good guys—Terry Johnson had five kids, three guys older than Matt and me, a girl my age named Eve and and a six-year-old boy named Rufus. We were like a frigin’ baseball team; Rob Anderson was a carpenter, a hunter, and a fisherman, and he had a cabin over at Comet pond where we used to stay over; and Hal Croft was a sociology professor at Clark, smartest guy I ever knew outside of Ted. Now there was Buttram. But you had to understand it and not say much. That’s Ma’s business, and so long as Buttram doesn’t start acting like he’s my Dad, we’re fine. You just had to keep steady, try not to worry, keep quiet, listen, and not think you know something until you let it settle in your mind, until it began to grow clear by itself. There were an awful lot of things to be cleared up. The art and balls issue might even take a lifetime. You had to be ready for it. You had to have stamina.
When the truck got on the shitty roads near home, it started bouncing hard, but Matt didn’t slow down, just kept laughing and saying, Is this old beast something or what?, and then grinding the gears so bad you imagined bits of metal piling up in the engine block. Meantime, I was going right off the seat and holding on to the window handle. I’m such a stick next to Matt. I don’t think my legs are even as big as his arms. Once I had double pneumonia and had to stay home from school for a month and Matt used to hold me up by the legs when Ma wasn’t around and the stuff in my lungs would gurgle out. It was a game we had. I guess I was bored. Ma said the liquid in there was from my body trying to fight off the real bad cold I had before. It seemed dumb you got sick because your body was trying to keep you from being sick. But I listened when Ma read from an old medical dictionary about how people could die from pneumonia. I guess she just wanted me to know what I was getting into. I took it real serious after that and wouldn’t let Matt hold me up by the legs. I had to prepare for death. Of course, I got better, but I’ll always remember that pneumonia starts with a ‘p’.
The truck was bouncing hard and pencils and change and receipts for materials were falling off the dash. Matt slowed down some, but still, his sweater and the papers between us on the seat slid off and that’s when I saw the gun.
Matt saw me looking and picked it up, driving with one hand.
“This thing’ll put a puppy face on the biggest asshole,” Matt said. “It’s a 38 Drez’s old man sold me.”
Matt pointed the gun past my nose and I could see through one of the holes in the revolver part, right through to the trees whipping by, but the other holes were filled, like brass eggs in a carton.
“Seeing the bullets,” said Matt. “That does the trick, puts the jello in the knee caps.”
Matt cocked the gun, moved the empty hole out of sight, and pulled the trigger.
“Think old Teddy Boy could manage that self-satisfied cigarette pose with this thing up his nose?” Matt laughed and threw the gun down on the seat.
“I thought it was gonna go off,” I said.
“Come on, Jack. You think I’d shoot out the window of my own truck?”
I looked out the window.
“Still, I really did think it was going to go off.”
“Hey, little man,” Matt laughed. “It’s Okay. I knew there was an empty chamber coming up.”
“Still, I really, really thought it was going to go off.”
“You okay?” Matt drove and looked at me, smiling. “Hey, whatta ya say we go down to the dump and pop some rats? Take a little detour?”
“I never shot a gun,” I said.
“Oh, man. You feel like you got a pack of lightening bolts in your palm. Blam, one shot, and those rats are cleaned and skinned.”
“Won’t Ma worry?”
Matt pulled a u-ey and we headed down past the reservoir, through Leominster State Forest, then came out on 68. I stuck my head out again, still shaky from thinking that gun was gonna go off. I breathed in the damp woods air, like dirt and rain and heat, and then a slight swamp smell near the edge of the reservoir. Later we passed fields with stone walls dividing them, a rusted out tractor half buried, a row of bee houses in another field, sections of spruce trees, grey pockets of ash, sometimes a thick, crooked birch with its bark rolling off like sheets of newspaper, and rocks as big as dinosaurs in the middle of the woods.
Out here no red-haired creep would be saying stuff to me. I wished we’d see him on the side of the road and we’d stop and Matt would stick the gun in his face and say, Wanna get blown away by a stranger?, and then we’d tie him up and blindfold him and take him out to the middle of the state forest and kick him in the nuts and say good luck finding your way back to that urinal in Worcester.
Hub Carlson was watching the dump gate and he came out of his shack when we pulled up. He said for all the girls in Rutland to watch out because the Harrison boys were out bird-dogging, and Matt said, Hey, Hub, we catch you whacking your wilson in there?, and then Hub said he was going to kick Mart’s ass all the way to the New Hampshire border, and they both laughed and it shocked me the way Matt talked to Hub. Matt was older than me, but not old like Hub, and even though Hub was no town leader, he was still an old guy.
“That you, Jack?” Hub leaned in the window. One of his eyes drooped, almost closed when he smiled, and he had white hairs like horns coming out of his nose.
Matt said, “He’s been in Boston with our cousin Ted, so I’m kinda easing him back into the lowlife again.”
Matt smiled at me and Hub looked away across the dump. I had an urge to stick up for Ted again, but it didn’t seem worth it.
“How’s Anita?” Hub asked Matt. Anita Larson was the life guard at Comet Pond and Mart’s sorta girlfriend. “Oh, she’s fine, so fine,” said Matt. “And your Ma?”
“You know Dick Buttram?” Matt said.
“Everyone in the trades knows Buttram.”
“Ma’s going out with him,” I piped in.
“I think I heard that,” Hub said.
“Fuckin’ lizard face,” said Matt.
Matt went into the shack to use the phone and tell Ma we’d be a little late, and I was stuck there with Hub. He asked about Ma again, looking all dreamy, and I just wanted to say why don’t you knock it off, Hub? She’s fine and she’s my Ma and sometimes she goes out with Buttram and doesn’t come home but she always calls to say what’s in the fridge. But I just fidgeted and Hub got quiet.
Matt came out of the shack looking pissed and walked toward Hub like he was going to hit him.
“Hey, how’s that hand?” Hub asked.
“Worthless,” said Matt. “I’m learning to hold my hammer with my left.”
“No more operations?” Hub asked.
“Nah, I’m through with that. Fuck it. It opens and closes, right?”
I tried, like I’d tried many times, to imagine what it must have been like to have the table saw blade come up through his palm. All Matt told me was that he was sure glad he’d been drunk.
We drove into the deepest part of the dump, walls of trash all around us except for one wall of dirt rising up to the woods where the roots of the trees closest to the edge were showing, hanging there like they were waiting for the earth to come back.
Matt turned off the truck and said, “Just like Cambridge, hey Jack?”
There was a smell of ash and burning rubber, but when you breathed it in it was almost sweet, sweet like a dirty sock.
“What did Ma say?” I asked.
“She’s gonna marry Buttram.”
“He asked her.”
“And she said yes?”
“What do you think, Jack? Just like that we’re rich kids.”
“She didn’t really say yes.”
“She didn’t say no and she wants us both dressed up for dinner with Buttram tonight.”
“There’s no way she’d say yes.”
Matt leaned over and opened the glove compartment, pulling out a box of shells and opening them with one hand.
“You like Ted, don’t you?” said Matt.
I shrugged. I still couldn’t believe it about Ma.
Matt dumped the shells into his shirt pocket. “It’s good you liked Bean Town. Ma has plans for you.”
I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, but I nodded.
We got out of the truck and slammed the doors.
“She’s got no other options than lizard face. Can you understand that, Jack?”
“What about Bob Anderson? You still see him around.”
“He’s a fucking carpenter.”
“You’re a carpenter,” I said.
Matt raised the gun fast and fired. The crack visited every corner of the dump. Way off I saw two crows leap out of a tree.
Matt yelled, fucker!, then took aim and pulled off another and another and another until the echoes were mixing together and it sounded like we were being shot at.
Finally, I spotted the rat. Matt moved close and shot just under the rat’s belly and that made it jump like a huge flea. Matt reloaded. Keep an eye on him, Matt said, then he finished reloading and said, Where is he? Come on, Jack. Where?
I said, “He’s in that Chock Full O’ Nuts can.”
“Look, Jack.” Matt moved up close, too close to be fair, and aimed like he’d been after that rat for a long time. “I’m going to create a little art,” he said.
The can leapt up the trash heap spinning lopsided like a spazzed-out top. The rat’s tail circled around like a little whip, blood gathering on the end of it, snapping sprays of blood while the rat kept running and running and running into the bottom of the can.
Matt ran up close, trying to take aim at the dancing rat in the can. He nailed it in two shots and stood there staring. I had the feeling that a crowd of people had just left. We heard the faint sound of Hub’s voice and turned around to see him jumping up and down and waving up near the shack. For some reason Matt raised the gun and shot Hub’s shack and Hub hit the dirt with his hands over his head.
“Let’s get the fuck outta here,” said Matt.
“Why are you shooting at Hub?”
“I just shot the shack.”
I looked at Hub, still down in the dirt. “I don’t think Hub knows that,” I said.
“Jack, get in the truck.”
“I thought I was going to get to shoot?”
“You really want to blow apart a rat like that?”
“Do they always die that way?”
“It’s all nerve endings, all we are is a bunch a fucking nerve endings.”
Matt fired up the truck and we headed out the back way, down an old logging road that would take us past the reservoir and up behind Kent Allen’s house.
“That was cool watching you shoot,” I said. Matt looked all tense and serious. “That sure would have made Ted shit his pants.”
Matt grinned and nodded, but he didn’t laugh like I thought he would.
“Don’t tell Ma about this, okay? I told her we went over to see Anita.”
Kent was out in his driveway with his head under the hood of his Camaro, which was about 80 percent unpainted bondo. The crack of his bone white ass was showing and Matt yelled out, Thar she blows! Kent wheeled around and gave us the finger as we pulled out on to 140.
Matt accelerated more than he had to going up through the gears, but that and yelling at Kent loosened him up some. When he got into fifth, it was quiet enough to talk and I said, “Are you still going out with Anita?”
Matt didn’t answer right away, and I thought maybe I shouldn’t have asked.
“Why?” he said. “You interested in her?”
“I’m just asking.”
“You ever think about wanting to slam her?”
“I just wondered if you guys were still going out.”
“I don’t mind if you think that stuff, Jack.”
“Anyway, she’s going out with some college dork now.”
“That’s the way it goes, little man.”
We were quiet for awhile, the truck cruising in a rumbling hum.
“She’s got a nice set of hooters, huh?” Matt cupped his chest and grinned. I puffed my cheeks out and nodded.
We came to a hill and Matt downshifted, gunning it over the rise. It felt like we got some air. Already, Boston seemed like a million years ago.
“Hey, Jack. You ever whack it?”
“Pound the pud.” He demonstrated.
Matt laughed. “Not really?”
“It kept me from going bonkers when I was your age.”
“I can’t make it work.”
“How do you do it?”
My ears were hot and I was rubbing my hands together.
“Hey, I’m not going to tell anybody. What? In the shower?”
I stared out the window and then back at Matt. “A sock,” I said.
“Like you slip it over?”
I nodded. Matt laughed, and finally I did too. “Try it in the shower, little man. But don’t use soap, use shampoo.”
“Just trust me.”
“You still do it?”
“It’s an invaluable skill, little man. One that will serve you well in the years to come.”
“But it doesn’t work with me.”
“Just keep at it. You’ll figure it out.”
I made my hand fly out the window again and we turned off 140 on to Mirick Road. It felt good talking to Matt about that stuff. I’d written things about Anita, and Mrs. Welsh too, but I never told anybody. I kept the papers in one of my Dad’s old brief cases, which had a combination lock I had to figure out myself because Ma couldn’t remember the combo. I spent a whole afternoon figuring it out, working down through the numbers until I got it: 007. Ma laughed when I told her, a kind of uneasy laugh though, like after she got used to the forsythia Matt stole for her walkway. I just thought dad must have been cool.
I kept the 007 brief case with the things I’d written about wanting to do to Anita Larson and Mrs. Welsh behind the wall in my bedroom closet. I’d cut a square hole in the sheet rock with a steak knife. There was a space behind there just big enough to squeeze through and have a flashlight and read about the things I wanted to do to Mrs. Welsh and Anita Larson. For some reason it was important that I crumple the papers up into little balls and read them later on like I’d just found them somewhere.
I was mowing Mrs. Welsh’s lawn on Saturday, and I’d be watching her on her hands and knees in the flower bed, arching her back and wiping the sweat off her forehead with the back of her wrist. And I’d probably see Anita on Sunday if my friend Al Hughes and I went swimming at Comet. It was hard acting normal knowing, what I’d written, but the info was safe in the 007 brief case behind the wall. Hopefully it wouldn’t get out. It took a lot of energy to keep these secrets, but there just didn’t seem to be anything to do but keep them.
When we pulled up the driveway, Ma was sitting on the front step in her night gown. I wished she wouldn’t do that. We were pretty close to the center of town. She always sat there like that smoking cigarettes or having a Scotch, her hair like corn silk all tangled up, and the skin on her neck white like a milk weed when you cracked it open. She had beautiful teeth too. They made her face bright no matter how tired she looked. But sometimes I was proud of her when she was on the porch like that, like when Al came over and I just said, Hey, Ma. We’re going to ride bikes, which was something Al could never say to his Ma, not like that. Then Ma would walk out to the driveway and kiss us both on the forehead, telling us to be careful, and I got to watch Al’s face go red like a tomato.
Ma stood up when we came up the walk. “How did you two get so gorgeous?” she said.
That stopped Matt and me in our tracks. We smiled and looked down at our feet.
“How was Anita?” Ma asked.
“Fine,” said Matt.
And that was enough to make a hard silence. Ma said, “Well?,” looking at me.
“How was Boston? How was Ted? I want to know everything. Did he take you to the aquarium? Did you go over to Haymarket?”
“Didn’t you hear?,” Matt said. “Jack’s moving to Boston.” Ma gave me a look that said, Is that true?
“Not like right away or anything,” I said.
“So you had fun with Ted?”
Ma’s eyes flicked over at Matt before they got to me, but I don’t think Matt saw it. “Sure, I guess.”
“Go on, Jack,” said Matt, slapping me on the arm. “Tell Ma what you told me.”
There I was, split up again, Matt and Ma staring down at me. I just wanted to run around the side of the house.
“Ted took me to an art place. I liked that.”
“What else?” Ma asked, reaching forward with her hand and pushing my hair behind my ear, which bugged me.
“You know, other stuff. I liked it, Ma. You were right about it expanding my horizons.”
That did it. She smiled, her eyes went watery, and it was like she was seeing me born and grown up at the same time.
“Well, I did my good deed for the day,” said Matt. “The Little Prince has returned. Now if you’ll be kind enough to excuse me, I’ve got business to attend to.”
“Eight O’Clock,” Ma said.
“Ah, yes. Lizard Face.”
Ma didn’t get mad, she even grinned.
“I want you cleaned up and presentable,” Ma said.
“You mean I get to eat in the house?” Matt said, standing hip cocked and cool the way I knew Ma hated.
“Maybe I should have sent you to Boston,” Ma said.
Matt took a deep breath and said, “Can I go now, your majesty?”
Ma stared him down and he looked over at me and rolled his eyes. It looked fake. One of his legs was shaking. I watched the hand again. He was holding it close to his stomach, the wrist limp, and that awful shade of purple ran half-way up his arm. I remembered the gun in that hand, only now it seemed like the hand was worse, all bloated, a bloody nerve ending like that spazzed out dying rat, and I imagined the hand wrapping itself around the gun, becoming part of the gun, and then the gun melting up into the hand, pushing into the bone where the nerve wires used to be.
“It would mean a lot to me if you showed up,” Ma said.
“I’ll try,” said Matt. “But me and Drez have to make plans. We’ve got to make sure that New Hampshire crew doesn’t get the Miller job.”
Ma gave him the look.
“Alright,” said Matt, turning to go.
“Matt,” Ma said.
Matt looked back, “Yeah?” he said.
Matt turned around quick, not even saying anything to me. He hopped in the truck, slammed the door, and the engine exploded into a heavy idle. I wanted to run after him, to tell him about that red-haired creep in the men’s room, poking his head down into my urinal even though there were a bunch others free. I wanted to tell Matt what the guy said to me. I wanted to tell him that the guy said, “You busy?”
What kind of question was that?
“Come on, kid,” he said. “You busy or what?”
“I’m pissing. And I’m waiting for my brother Matt.”
“So you’ve got some free time?”
I didn’t answer. I just wanted to wrap it up and get the hell out of there.
“Hey, kid,” the creep said, putting his hand on my shoulder, the way a Dad might, “You wanna get blown by a stranger?”
“Rats at the dump, little man!” Matt yelled to me out his window.
I waved and yelled yeah back but I don’t think he heard me.
Matt tore up part of the lawn pulling out, and even after the truck had disappeared up the road, I could still hear it accelerating uphill miles away. The sound was like Matt yelling back at us.
“What’s this rats at the dump?” Ma asked.
“Oh, Jack. What on earth are we going to do about Matt?”
“Is it true you’re getting married?” I asked.
“What did Matt tell you?”
“That Mr. Buttram asked.”
Ma held my hand, but she didn’t hear me. “He won’t take care of that hand properly,” she said. “I can’t force him. Oh, what is wrong with you men? You are either sons of bitches or lost cowboys. Is there no middle ground?”
Ma let go of my hand, sat down on the step, and started to cry. I looked down at my feet, thinking about Matt, about Buttram, about my Dad I never really knew, about the other guys my Ma went out with, and I wondered who was a son of a bitch and who was a lost cowboy. It didn’t seem like Ma deserved either or, and I think I decided right then I was going to be different. I didn’t know what way different, but I had a few years to decide, and in the meantime I just stared down at a bunch of ants coming out of a crack in the walkway. Things could have turned out better, but what’s gone is gone, and so I focused hard on that crack in the walkway, which hooked up to other cracks, like a map of rivers. The ants had pushed up pyramids of dirt and I slowly began to realize just how many ants there were. Thousands. All of them busy, doing some job; hauling eggs, dragging dead flies five times their size across a space of concrete that must have seemed like a desert, running in and out of those pyramids at amazing speed, standing up on their hind legs and cleaning their front legs like chefs sharpening their knives. And at the edge of the walk, I saw that the grass was long and thick. This was summer grass, lazy grass you rolled in, grass you cut to make money, grass that bunched up wet beneath the mower, grass that smelled like the summer, that was summer, that was the world while Ma cried.