Yard Sale Dog
by Sam Bowman
Part Two: There is Only Falling
Jennifer was naked in the doorway. I heard the latch
of the master bath slide and click, and waited. “You
can open them now,” she said. Her eyes were closed,
her head slightly down and away, honey hair and
falling feathers in the soft shadow of light from the
vanity behind. She held back slightly, arms down,
either side of the doorframe and I followed the dark
curves and silhouetting light swirled in cream, falling
soft into the firm shade of her belly button, and then,
rising steeply, her hips, smooth and wide, and once
lost in plush down, I came back to Jennifer’s face,
eyes still closed, and began again. “Nothing?” She
turned her body slightly away as she dropped her
arms, releasing the doorframe, holding an erotic
play of shadow across and between her breasts.
The fire that burned the clothes from all the women I saw around me slid around Jennifer in greedy disbelief at perfection beyond my imagination. I forgot for a moment that she was real and I was laying on my mom’s waterbed.
I was long and lean, and we were both sixteen. But she was years away. All the girls were. The months since moving in with my mom the girls had been unlike anything I knew. In Salem, just a long Summer and cold Spring ago, I was a known undesirable and had been for almost four years. My disinterest wasn’t an angle, it was habituation. I never expected anything from girls, so never had a problem talking to them. Now, in the fading Seattle Summer, I had nice clothes, a little bit of money, and even some braces on my teeth: nothing was ill fitting, handed down, or crooked, and I was new, interesting, and easy.
It was great at first having girls have trouble talking to me, or to catch them looking at me and watch their boyfriends puff up. I told one kid not to worry, I’d wait, and winked at him. It was enough for him to call me a faggot but his girl was still smiling when he decided to be done beating his chest and walk away. The earrings in my left ear were enough for some kids to call me a faggot, and I thought it was a hiralous admission when they got angry. I wasn’t as unsure. I was the part I didn’t want, I had just learned vanity and I liked it but most of the time I bluffed; which wasn’t a lie if no one called me out.
The boys never did, even though they routinely tried. It was a fact of being new, like clouds and rain. It was easier at Kent-Meridian than it had been anywhere else. I’d learned how not to look scared years before when someone decided I was a rung on a social ladder, it didn’t always work. It was easier at K-M because I knew what I looked like, I imagine it is the same for big guys. I was big enough to be trouble, most kids could barely do one push up, Poppa had me doing them since I was seven. But more than that, my face had taken a handsome, square-jawed turn since the last time I was the new kid. Along with my fine clothes, I knew I looked like too much risk and most guys avoided me.
The girls did something new. I expected some of them to come as one in a group being vicious for cheers, as they had in the past. The only thing that worked against these insult confrontations was ruthless humiliation. The bluff here was who had less shame and the bluff wasn’t mine. Just like the boys, I made myself too much trouble to mess with. The girls at Kent-Meridian came at me differently. Passed notes and giggles and girls talking for friends. I was the cock of the walk and it felt good, but, like everything at school, it was all pretend.
Lacy, a girl in the apartment building across from mine, just came over, introduced herself, and walked me to my own room to make out. I never saw her at school. Stephanie took me home from the AM/PM. I was under her shirt when her father came home early. She was pretty, beneath a rugged affliction of teen skin, and her father didn’t seem that angry, driving me home. He even tried making conversation. Candy found me at the roller rink. She was short with broad shoulders and heavy breasts. In my room, she was aggressive, topless, and insistent that she give me a blowjob. While I fought her to keep my pants on, Candy told me that she and Stephanie had followed me home for weeks. I met Candy that night, Stephanie just once, days before. I had no idea they knew each other. I didn’t know any of them. I realized a need to trust them. I didn’t. I wasn’t ready for her inspection and judgment. I was afraid of it.
I didn’t avoid the girls that pushed too hard. I still wanted them and loved that they wanted me but I always found some reason to avoid anything more than us being topless. I was shocked how many girls would do just that and be off doing it with somebody else in a week. One even eyed me while holding hands with her new guy, like I needed to be jealous. I didn’t want ownership of anyone. I wanted to objectify them, and myself, but hadn’t figured out how. Or maybe it was the other way around.
My dick throbbed with reflexive urgency and I remembered that I was in the same room as Jennifer. I had kept the covers back on purpose, bluffing myself through to a flimsy courage. It was a moment of terrifying awareness before I looked at her again.
“Jennifer,” I could see the same fear in her half-step back, in her eyes, open now and looking at the ground. Her coyness wasn’t a show. I saw she heard rejection in my long, awed silence. “You are gorgeous.”
Girls could think what they wanted about themselves. I knew where it came from but there was a Men’s Health right next to Cosmo and I didn’t look like him either. It was what made them so easy to cut down. My attention should be affirmation enough; it was all I had to go on. I might have stayed silent with another girl, the girls I didn’t know but Jennifer could’ve had a glossy finish.
“Yeah?” Jennifer made to cross her arms and put them down again, unsure, but looking at me now. It occurred to me that she was the first woman, outside of family, to see me naked, and the only one to see how my hair had grown in. I tried to not think about my erection. “You wouldn’t lie?”
“I don’t like to lie, it’s too much work.” I did lie, about masturbation and virginity, I had a lot of both, but neither, if asked, and I hated that I lied about it. Honesty was a part of my new life, but it wasn’t always a hard thing to do. “You are gorgeous and if you don’t know that, hold the door frame again, no, yes, but this time look at me, unbelievable, gorgeous… you don’t know that? Gorgeous, know it.”
I thought for a second that she’d laugh at me, not at my lanky nakedness, she’d already had time to do that, but at my earnest conviction. Coy slid out and coquettish slid in with the slightest smile on her face. It was all unbelievable.
Jennifer pranced to the bed and eased in, sending muted ripples through the waveless waterbed. I ran an open palm along an outline softer than the silken silhouette had promised. From the hip I followed her path up, then down, thumb tracing a half-moon around her belly button. I pulled her in tighter, slid my fingertips up the faint bumps of her spine, around to her back. A firm glide across her shoulder blade and she pressed her chest against mine, wisps of hair thickening in my palm into a soft pad against her neck. I leaned down, rubbed my lips lightly against hers. Her tongue, a momentary feather on the tip of mine. I gritted my teeth, arched my fingers and pulled them stiff down her back and nibbled lightly on her lower lip. When my hand crossed her waist again and held her full and naked ass and Jennifer ground her hips closer, I was beyond what I knew.
I knew how to kiss. It was the braces. I always needed to be aware of them. I didn’t like having them, it was only because the dentist said that I was likely to develop a protruding lower jaw and it would make the corrective procedure easier that I had them anyway. The braces forced a caution in kissing that ran against the blurring lust it kindled. Forgotten for a moment, a slight shift for a dead arm, or flare in intensity, and there could be blood. Fortunately, the girls that preceded Jennifer over the last two months had provided me plenty of practice. The braces had taught me about gentle aggression: the ecstatic frustration of burning subdued passion, of kissing anyway.
Jennifer had braces too, about a month ago, two weeks before the end of summer, when I started walking her to the bus stop and waiting with her, after her noon-to-four shift at the theater. I complained about how much the tightening hurt and she talked about how excited she was that hers were coming off. After a week, Jennifer walked to my apartment to wait for her father to pick her up. She took my hand one day as we walked and kissed me before she left. I stopped playing with the other girls. Jennifer moved at a pace that I could keep. She didn’t have to keep her clothes on, but she did, and that was fine. It meant she wasn’t going to be wrestling to take off mine. We watched movies that my mom had recorded three to a tape. I showed her the miniatures I liked to paint, the books I read, and listened to her tell me about her plans to be a nurse. Maybe a doctor, I said. No, nurses, she said, did more. I let her handle the .44 magnum Jeff kept, loaded, in the coffee table. I unloaded first, of course. I even had dinner with her family.
They were an odd bunch. The ruler for other straights. I knew how to conduct myself. I took out my earrings, dressed like I’d seen other people do on Sunday, and respectfully charmed her dad and mom. Luckily, she was an excellent cook and he was a fan of Errol Flynn movies. I had seen all the cable favorites from Captain Blood to Don Juan and I would have complemented her meal regardless. It was like putting on an old hat. One that didn’t fit anymore, but it was fun to play pretend.
Tonight, Jennifer took me out to see Freddy’s Dead. It was the second week of September, school had just started. The theater she worked at screened new movies to employees the day before opening night. It was going to be the last Nightmare on Elm Street movie and people were already buying tickets. It was a quarter to ten when the credits rolled, and she leaned in to whisper, “I told my dad to get me at midnight.” Her insinuation made my skin mad with hot shivers. She walked close to me on the way to my house, tightening an arm around my waist and leaning in to casually brush her breast against me. My mom and Jeff were gone, so when Jennifer asked if we could go to my room, I suggested the master. When she slipped into the bathroom, she told me to get naked and wait on the waterbed, and close my eyes, and she’d be right out, and to just wait, and close my eyes. She said it again before she opened the door, “Your eyes are closed still, right?”
Now Jennifer swam around me, sliding while I pressed, pushing closed any gap between us. Her tongue and slow breath against my neck was a tidal pull, powerfully urging downward and surging up again as she bit my ear and whispered. “I’m worried about my virginity.”
Jennifer didn’t stop moving. I did. I got caught playing pretend.
“Oh. Okay.” I hadn’t considered the state of her virginity or that sex was on the schedule. I should have, but I was excited about all the new stuff she was already giving me. I tried to think of what I knew about sex: the magazines, the hippy art photography book that my mom had, and Jeff’s porno tapes that he had hidden in a shoe box in their walk-in closet. She talked about her covenant with the Mormon church and something about a chaste sisterhood. She would no longer be allowed to walk with them. White-robed women holding candles and weird male chanting suddenly wedged themselves into my mind, while I panicked over practical applications of smut.
“So, they ask?” I heard the detail through my own anxiety and tried to comprehend it. I didn’t know much of anything about Mormons, or Catholics, or Jews, or anybody else. I went to church once when visiting an aunt in California, she was the only Christian in the family, and I wasn’t sure what kind. I wasn’t an atheist, I was just raised without the institution of religion. Poppa was the only deity I had ever believed in.
“It’s more than that.” What did that mean, what was more than just asking?
Jennifer pawed, and wiggled to rub herself softly against me, her hips, moving constantly, expectantly. She’d done all she could, fully presented her gift to me, and even placed it in my hand and as much as I wanted it, I didn’t. If she was afraid, it wasn’t of me, not like I was of her, of her virginity, of being the First, of being an unforgettable disappointment, a shiver of embarrassment, a story told only to the closest of friends. It was, obviously, more than that for her: for her there was some inquisition, some power that guaranteed shame for a shared intimacy, failed or fulfilling, discreet or lewd. “What right do they have to even ask?” I leaned away so I could see her with both eyes, her movements went slight, then stopped. I was unable to avoid speculation of what ‘more’ could be or my anger at the perpetual indignity of accusation to which she was subjected. “What right do they have to an answer, let alone the truth? Whatever you give them is what they have, rights or answers, it is always a choice.”
I was comfortable here, even in torrid skin to skin, pontificating righteously. More than that, I was certain I’d caused enough confusion for her to need to wait, to think it over.
Jennifer considered what I said, her face somber ,and I thought for a moment that I would have the time I needed to build up my own courage to hers. Then, she pushed in again, opening her arms, pressing her breasts firm against me, “I’m choosing you.”
I jerked back, protesting. The tips of my fingers beginning to tingle and the room past the waterbed going fuzzy. “I wasn’t trying to talk you into anything.”
“I’m doing what I want.” That was good, right? I wanted her, didn’t I? It almost hurt how much I wanted her. I tried to breathe. I couldn’t reject her first now, not anymore.
I went back to what I knew, playing my fingers coyly against her neck and shoulders, down her arms and back until I could feel my fingertips again. I moved my face in close with hers and closed my eyes when my lips brushed her lips. I waited there, collecting her breath with mine, moist and warm. Here was the beginning. The kiss. Jennifer dashed her tongue on mine. Then again. Once more. Each, resounding, rising, higher, until cascading into a long and familiar frenzy.
I started at the curve of her ribs, under the teardrop curve of her breast now, full and heavy in my palm, fingertips swaying into delicate circles until her nipples resisted my thumb and her areola pinched into knots. I moved my hand down, our kissing slowed, distracted, as I drew my fingers across her belly button, down to somewhere I pretended wasn’t new. I could pretend that I knew her pubic hair would be silky, that the lips of her vagina would be powder soft and folded closed, that Jennifer would grind her hips forward pressing my hand against her vagina, but not that it would blossom open, hot, thick, and slippery.
I panicked, jerked my hand back, momentarily a child watching a falling glass, certain I broke something. Jennifer’s eyes were closed, but were they a second before? I tried to think of what it meant, all the wet, it was something the women said in porn. It was good, it meant that it was time for sex. I had to do that. I got to my knees in the waterbed and bobbled quickly between Jennifer’s legs. I think she looked for a second, but everything was splotchy. Images blinked in a frantic spin. Her vagina. A leg. Her breasts. Jennifer’s head turned to the side; her eyes closed. Why were her eyes closed? What did ‘more’ mean? I saw it last: my flaccid penis.
I shook it and pulled at it until I realized it looked like I was masturbating. I threw myself down next to Jennifer. I tried to pretend I was just doing something else but couldn’t think of what. I started again with what I knew. She touched me here. I touched her there. I thought I might touch her vagina again, but I was unnerved. For a moment my erection came back, hard enough at least that I thought I could try again, and again as I brought myself above her I saw only in hurried bursts, a leg, her breasts, head turned to the side, her eyes closed, and again, my flaccid penis.
It couldn’t be like this, my mind reeled around and I was almost nauseous, to do poorly was one thing but to fail completely and she was gorgeous. I just had to think. I needed a second. I jumped off the waterbed and ran into the bathroom, claiming a suddenly full bladder. Maybe she would believe that. Behind the door I beat ferociously at my dick, until I had worked it solid, then ran out. I dove into the waterbed, rocking it wildly. I tumbled over Jennifer, trying to get on top of her as quickly as I could, falling again into a panicked slide show: a leg, her vagina, breast, head turned, eyes closed, flaccid.
It went on like that until fifteen to midnight when Jennifer rushed into the bathroom to dress before her dad arrived. I was ashamed beyond words as we waited in the living room for the sound of his car. I couldn’t look at her and hadn’t dared to say anything, and we sat in silence. Her father honked, and I walked Jennifer to the door, my head low, I finally forced myself to look her in the face.
“I’m sorry that you didn’t want me.” Jennifer was almost broken, but she held her chin up, and met me level. Could it be that she hadn’t understood that it was me, that I was, what, impotent? An impotent virgin terrified of her vagina. She’d never have to know, she could have my shame as some fundamental rejection of her, and it would be easy.
I knew I wasn’t as honest as I pretended. I tried, but it was always so easy to lie and tell some kind of truth at the same time. I hadn’t lied to Jennifer but she didn’t know about Natalie, or the BGD’s, or about all the LSD and speed. It had been a long Summer. She thought I was a square that she could risk in front of her family. I was a liar, if only by omission and ignorance, and I wasn’t sure what dignity I had but I was certain of hers.
“No, not for second, it was me, I don’t know what happened, I wanted you, I want you, I don’t know what happened.” I watched her face for judgment, and found none, none that matched the shame slithering in my own guts. Instead, she seemed filled with, with… I couldn’t say. “But I’d like to try again.”
It was true. I would be more open next time I talked to her. It was important that I tell more about the things I do. I could tell her my fears, even if I didn’t understand them myself. I‘d do better next time, even if we didn’t have sex.
Jennifer beamed and kissed me lightly, her dad watching us from his car. And then she just smiled and left without saying a thing.
I found Jeff’s secret shoebox, set the VCR counter to zero, and watched ten minutes of Marilynn Chambers in Insatiable 3. My balls were still sore, so I fast forwarded to a familiar scene: two sisters and some random guy, and pulled out another orgasm. I rewound the tape back to zero, pressed the lid down on the shoebox, and placed everything back where it was. I tried not to think of Jennifer, but masturbated to her before falling asleep.
“What do these things do?” One of the three boys around me held up the Tic-Tac container of tiny white pills I’d brought from home.
“Keep it down, they’re cross-tops, man, speeds, uppers, amphetamines from Mexico?” I didn’t see recognition in any of those words. “Dude, haven’t you taken a health class?”
“Don’t worry about it, Randy, they’re fucking awesome,” Tanner said, one I’d dealt to before.
“No, no, no, I don’t want to sell you something you don’t want,” I said. I’d made a habit of hanging around the auditorium building during lunch, so I could be found. “It’s going to jack up your heart rate, give you energy like you never thought, jazz you right out, so, if you’re looking for a mellow this ain’t it.”
“It’ll make your fucking hair stand-up.”
“Yes, that it does.” I nodded at Tanner’s enthusiasm.
“How much are they?” Randy gave me back the Tic-Tac box and put his hands in his pockets.
“Quarter each or five for a dollar and I don’t like to sell more than ten at a time.”
I didn’t need the money, mom gave me twenty dollars a day from her tips. I wasn’t sure what I could sell them for, a dollar each at least, but I wanted to make friends, the right kind, not money. It took four years in Salem to get an invitation to the only party I ever attended, and now, I was two years from graduation. I didn’t have the time.
“But he’s going to be sharing with me, right Ran?” Tanner said. Randy nodded and pulled out two dollars from his pocket.
“Fantastic, don’t take more than two.” I counted out ten pills. “And wait until you start coming down before you eat more, it might take all ten to kill you, but they can kill you, alright?”
“Yes! Awesome, can I get two, Ran?”
“What was your name, dude?” Randy asked me as he handed Tanner two pills. Tanner tossed them both in his mouth, swallowing them dry.
“Sam,” I replied. “You got something to put those in?”
“I think so, Ethan?” Randy tapped the back of his hand on the one boy that said nothing and looked as if he wanted to be anywhere else. “You still got those Pop-Rocks?”
“Yeah, I was saving them for later.”
“Finish them now, I need the wrapper.”
“Well, gentlemen, if you got friends send ‘em my way, I’ll be here again tomorrow, but my girl’s here, so I got to go.”
Jennifer smiled and waved as I finished my business with my new friends. She was wearing a green dress that ended just below the knee. The top was laced and tied just below her chest, beautifully filling a lace fringed and low-cut cream yellow blouse, a peasant princess from some idyllic alpine village.
“Her?” Randy shoved the folded packet into his pocket and smiled at me.
“Yup.” I smiled back, certain of his admiration.
“Mormon girl, huh?”
“Yeah.” I stopped smiling but Randy didn’t. “You know her?”
“Don’t need to, I’m not interested in jerking-off until I’m married.”
“Hey, guys.” They were laughing as she slid in next to me, she smiled like straight sunshine. “Ethan, right? We have Economics together.”
Ethan gargled something though a mouth of crackling Pop Rocks and shuffled further from Randy and Tanner, obviously uncomfortable at being named.
“We gotta go if we’re going to make it to Jack-in-the-Box and back,” Randy stuck his hand out and when I grabbed it, he rolled it up, reversing our thumbs into a bro shake. “I’ll see you again, Sam, and good luck with all that.”
“So, what were you guys talking about?” Jennifer asked as we sat on the cement lip of a large planter that took up the corner of the main school building.
“Nothing, I was just selling them some drugs.”
“You’re so funny.” She laughed, throwing her head back, leaning on one arm, the other reached out with a hand on my shoulder.
“You think so?” I grinned back, wondering what she saw when she looked at me. I was certain that she could see the wet plaster of bravado covering the unresolved emasculating failure of last night.
I faked it anyway. We talked for a bit, nothing that mattered. I complained that the Drama teacher required I join the Thespian Society if I didn’t want to lose a letter grade. I bragged that I didn’t join anything no matter the cost, and my indignation at being compelled. She said that it would look good on my college application and that was why she didn’t mind joining DECA, another organization I refused to join when I moved up to Seattle. She talked about her Pottery elective, and I told her how Calligraphy wasn’t made for lefties. Soon the break was over, and she pulled me in close, pressing against me, a final kiss, feathers and a brush of silk.
“I can go out Friday after school, my Dad said midnight was too late but that he’d let me stay out until ten.” Jennifer’s eyes were bright and as mischievous as mine must have been as I told her I was selling drugs. “I thought we could give it another try.”
“There’s nothing I want more.” I was filled for a moment, swelled beyond the narrow stream of hope, she had the power to break me at the root, a power I thought any woman would have taken. Yet she offered herself to me again.
She looked at me as she did in the doorway, not naked from the bathroom, unsure and exposed, but as she did as she left, when she was ignorant to what I was.
Jennifer's face bloomed into rich, expectant serenity, “I love you,” she said.
Everything inside collapsed into sadness. I knew what was expected but there was nothing but vast, empty desert of ruined monuments, half buried pedestals with nothing atop them but broken feet. This dry spring of sorrow was not for me, but for her, a golden-yellow flower, innocent and naïve, that sought to drink where there was only thirst. She had built a pedestal for me that I would not, could not, climb. There was no water here, no soil but sand.
“I don’t love you. I think that you are amazing, but love? Do you even know what that means?” I didn’t intend to be cruel, though in an instant I could see I was.
“I was going to give you everything.” Jennifer’s face bent but immediately went hard.
“I’m not going to lie to you.” I wanted to tell her I could have. Every boy I knew would have said anything to be with her. Instead, I stood silent and hidden.
Jennifer turned and walked quickly away. Gorgeous, green dress, cut just below the knee. It was the last I would see of her.
Bobby never stayed anywhere for very long, he was either with a new girl, creating mayhem with his rowdy childhood friends, or hiding from the police. So, it wasn’t surprising when he eventually wasn’t at Natalie’s apartment. It was surprising that instead of the neighbor, Jerry, taking Bobby’s place there was one white kid and three black kids. They were all about my age and all but one of the black kids was done up in BGD Folk black. I didn’t know what Black Gangster Disciples were at the time or their colors, but I knew gangsters, or people trying to be gangsters, when I saw them. They taught me how to play All Fives, different BGD tags and signs, slurs for different gangs, and introduced me to Amateur Night at the Apollo. I didn’t understand why the white kid would think that he could be a Black Gangster Disciple and why he let them ‘jump him in’ every weekend. It was the white kid that threw signs with the most fervor and fluidity and spoke with the thickest accent. It was a set he wanted, and he would pay anything for it. I thought he was pathetic.
I liked Tee the most. I don’t think he was the leader. I think Chi-Town was the leader. He was old enough to buy the Benson and Hedges menthols they called ‘Bitches and Hoes’. I thought his name was Shy-Town because he never said much. They laughed when I said it, and when I argued that it should be She-town anyway, like ‘She-ca-go’. Which lead to a half hour of everybody making various ‘sha’ ‘shy’ and ‘she’ noises. They didn’t do acid and got stoned, or ‘faded’ as Tee called it, only a couple of times I was over at Natalie’s. Tee told me that black people didn’t do acid. Ma said she’d done acid with black people years before, but it might be true nowadays. Tee was from Oakland and had lived in Sacramento, all over, just like I had. I liked being around someone that knew how hot it was at night in California, how corner stores sold liquor, and how it would rain. Tee had been homeless too, just with his mom instead of his dad. I don’t think Tee had ever had a white friend, the BGD wannabe aside, and I had never had a black friend.
Everything changed when a pimp showed up with a dude in Blood's red and teardrop tattoo on his face. I was told that the pimp was OG, and that meant respect but to me he looked like one of the dudes from Run DMC: gold chains, a white fedora, and white rhinestone glasses. He came looking to ‘turn out’ Natalie and get us to run his dope. He called the black kids, ‘youngblood’ and me ‘cousin’. Playtime was over, he said, a gang was a business. Soon the white BGD was jumped out and the black kid who didn’t claim a set stopped coming around.
Natalie always needed somebody and Tee was the BGD that fit. And when Tee wasn’t around as much anymore, I stepped in. Natalie knew how to make a man pursue her, she wasn’t attractive, but she was alluring. Small laughs, suggestive touches and looks, Natalie could make a man think he was pursuing her when it was her pursuing him all along. Natalie would have my virginity and never ask me to love her. I was set aside when Tee returned with his crew. I think Tee knew even if nobody said anything. I wouldn’t join the BGD’s. I wouldn’t run the pimp’s drugs. I grew my hair out and customized a pair of torn-up jeans to wear over spandex. I was embracing the masculine image I had of Bobby and rejecting theirs. I needed to claim respect if I wasn’t going to claim their set. I knew a challenge was coming, and I needed to head it off. I couldn’t fight like Bobby; I could bluff but once the punches started my whole body felt weak and heavy. So, I claimed space by looking crazy.
I’d said earlier about how Bobby had so many self-inflicted scars and how the biggest was a wide slash down the meat of his left forearm. What I didn’t mention was how I immediately wanted to know what that felt like, and how it took a perversely long time to reject trying it. What I had never rejected was the cigarette burns all over Bobby’s arms. That I could take, that was something I was going to try. But it would be stupid to do it without a reason, without an audience or a need for a performance.
I pushed the cherry against my skin and shuttered as I suppressed the reflexive need to pull it away, pushing it harder instead. It was a few moments of confused cold searing, then the pain was gone. Tee and the others saw what I did and made all sorts of noise, laughing and screaming, shocked that I had done it. I didn’t give them much attention, pretending it was nothing. The effect on them would be lost if I wasn’t hard about it. I wasn’t just challenging myself, but it was good to know I could take it.
I lit another cigarette right after and when it was low, Tee pointed at the mark on my shoulder, looked me in the face and said, “That was stupid, I betcha you won’t be doing that again.” I looked straight back, put the second one out next to the first and didn’t flinch. “Holeee shit!” Tee jumped back and shook his head. “White dudes is crazy.”
And that was all I needed.
Tee and I would have it out over Natalie, not for her though, I didn’t want her. I intervened when he came to her apartment drunk and tried to hit her. He followed me out of the apartment and into the street, his whole crew around me, including the pimp and his gangbanger heavy. Tee was too drunk to fight and fell to his knees throwing up in the street. There was no fight. Chi-Town pulled me out of the situation. He asked me as we walked if I loved Natalie and for a moment, I wasn’t sure. Either way, he said, it’d be best if I didn’t come back. I wouldn’t because a few days later I was living in a motel across town in Tukwila.
One night, after turning his brain into a particularly thick Russian tapioca, Jeff decided that I had wandered into their room while they were having sex. I hadn’t and didn’t even know what was going on when Ma chased me out of the apartment. Ma told me that after I was gone Jeff sat in the living room with his .44 magnum in his lap waiting for me to come home, while she tried to talk him back to bed. He didn’t remember anything the next day or acted like he didn’t. The day after my mother rented a U-Haul. I didn’t bother going to school. It was me, Ma, Tracy, Dusty, and Bobby. And, after Jeff went to work, we took everything that wasn’t his.
Over the summer, while I was at Natalie’s, Bobby had started a relationship with my sister, Dusty. Bobby had become my acid buddy and we hung out a lot. I didn’t tell him much about what was going on with the ‘Bubble Gum Dummies’ as he called them and he never asked about Natalie, probably because my sister was his girlfriend. Sometime in July, Dusty and Bobby started calling me Uncle Sam, which was second to my favorite ‘Sam I Am’, so it took days for me to figure out that Dusty was pregnant. I didn’t learn much more about the man that claimed to be a Miami Dolphin. I knew that Ma had been impressed by how much money he lost at the blackjack tables, that he was from Boston, and that he was in Seattle to be a bone marrow donor for his sister, currently being treated for leukemia at Swedish Medical Center. Ma said she wasn’t going to leave Jeff just yet. “That motherfucker can stay home and drink and pay my bills while I go out and have a good time,”she’d say. I think to make me feel better but also, I think she would have stayed, just for me. It didn’t matter. I didn’t blame her or Jeff or Poppa or even myself. As I loaded the U-Haul, I pretended that we were brazen thieves ransacking an apartment in the light of a cool afternoon. None of this mattered, the choices I made didn’t matter. Like some sort of cartoon, I had jumped from a burning plane, pulled the cord of my parachute, and nothing but pots and pans came out. Poppa was right, life wasn’t fair, and it didn’t seem like I could do anything about it.
We left the couch, the safe, the coffee table, the T.V., the waterbed, and the guns and booze. It was fun.
The stuff went into storage and I, Ma, Dusty, Bobby, and Tracy, Mom’s new man, moved into The Town and Country Suites motel across town. It was the biggest motel room I’d ever seen and too far for me to continue to go to the high school I was enrolled in. Not to worry though, Ma assured, we’d have a new place in a few days, and I could enroll in a new school. It was two months before we got a new place and the local high school wouldn’t take me, sending me instead to the ‘alternative’ high school.
There was a lot to learn about Tracy at the motel. First, his name was Jeff. The same as the motherfucker we’d just left. He claimed that he said his name was Tracy so that people would know that he was Jeff Sadur, former Miami Dolphin. I figured he was a liar and, when he challenged a ten-year old bragging about his red belt to a fight in the courtyard, a dangerous idiot. He wasn’t a rich retired professional football player, he was the Foghorn Leghorn.
After about a month we’d learned that Jeff was in town to donate blood marrow and likely from Boston like he said, given his accent, but the money he had was from stealing his leukemia-addled sister’s name, Tracy, and social security number. Jeff was addicted to gambling and had no skill. He could memorize a deck of cards or the sixteen digits of a credit card in a glance but couldn’t count cards enough to win with blackjack. And had no idea how he was supposed to bet. The more time I spent with him the more I believed that he was mentally retarded, not as a slur, diagnosable. I figured out that Jeff was never a Miami Dolphin when he couldn’t tell me what position he played. Instead, when I suggested wide safety, he agreed and when I suggested he was a half-tackle, he agreed, and again at tackleback. Jeff didn’t know the difference between a tight receiver or safety-backer and actual positions on the field. Jeff was a conman and a good one. I came to believe that Jeff was a kind of savant. He could get people to give him money on the promise that he would get them more money. My mom said that people thought that they were scamming him, that they were taking advantage of him, and that he could only scam the greedy.
The ‘alternative’ high school was a day care center for the discarded children of the sprawling suburbs of South Seattle: Kent, Renton, Tukwila, and Skyway. Skyway was where we lived, in a shitty little house after Jeff ran out of his sister’s money. In Renton Alternative class attendance was optional as long as the students stayed in the building. All classwork for the year was handed out at once, to be done at the pace of the students. Teachers were available if the student had questions but conducted no instruction. The only things that mattered were the periodic drug testing of some students and the wait lists of Renton VoTech and Job Corps. That was if anything mattered. I didn’t do a single sheet of work, didn’t have to do drug testing and wouldn’t have cared if they required me to. They could kick me out if they wanted. I went to school to hang out, score drugs, and plan for parties on the weekend. As often as not I would wander away from campus in the middle of the day high on acid. I had come to my mom for stability and now I was in the same situation I fled. Worse, if I thought about it too much. Like the braces in my mouth that hadn’t been tightened in months.
In Skyway a few months after Bobby left for Portland, Jordan was born. The situation showed itself for what it was: stability was not in the cards. All that was intended for my life was chaos, and I decided to embrace it. It didn’t matter. It had all been madness, reason was a matter of personal belief. I pushed limits. I stopped giving a shit. Where before I stayed close to my mom’s apartment, now I ranged all over. I’d get rides with anyone and go anywhere. Kegger in the woods all the way across town with people I didn’t know, done. We found where the mushrooms grew, and how to make tea. We shoplifted then overdosed on Dramamine or Robitussin, then hopped a bus for Downtown Seattle and wandered around until dawn, good times. Nobody had the money for coke, and meth and ecstasy weren’t a thing yet, but speed could be bought over-the-counter at truck stops at the edge of town and LSD was cheaper than weed and everywhere. I dove in, hard. All I cared for the world was the experiences I could take from it. I was the judge of my own actions and only my own. I was better than everyone, as low as anyone, and had rights to none. All that mattered to me was what I did, the rest seemed random and absurd.
Sam Bowman was born in Salem, Oregon. In 1999 he joined the military as a Washington State guardsmen and in 2002 he moved to New Hampshire where he married a girl in her mother's kitchen. They have two children. He earned a Masters degree from the University of New Hampshire in 2020.
Photo by Larry Clark.