The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Pulling down my pants was not enough. I had to let them fall below my knees and then carefully, so as not to lose my balance, turn as if on a vertical spit, heated by Tommy’s eyes.
I was not entirely a victim. For when Tommy was satisfied, his careful perusal complete, it was my turn. He stood where I had stood — by the water heater in a dark corner of his cellar — and I held the flashlight, aimed it at him, made him turn.
His thing was called a pecker. I couldn’t imagine why — there was nothing pecky about it. It was soft, white, and harmless. The small sac behind it shrank into a neat, if wrinkled, bundle, divided by a seam.
My thing was called a tinky. There wasn’t much to see aside from a hairless crease. Like a purse, it hid its wealth inside.
Why, then, did Tommy persist? I had seen enough, but there was something there he needed to feel again. Not that he touched me. But the ritual was in some way a release for him.
When I refused, he threatened, “I’ll tell Auntie Jean.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” I said.
“I would too.”
“You did it with me.”
“But she’ll blame you,” he said. And with that he moved toward the stairs.
“I won’t be your friend.”
Tommy reached the bottom of the stairs. “Auntie Jean!” he yelled.
“OK, OK,” I said.
The door at the top of the stairs opened, and Auntie Jean’s face appeared. From that perspective she looked every bit the crone she was, her face as wrinkled as Tommy’s scrotum, and ashy in the creases.
“I’m thirsty,” Tommy said, his bluff having worked.
“Get a drink of water, then,” rasped Auntie Jean. “I’m not your slave.”
Tommy went upstairs and came back with a glass of Kool-Aid, which we shared in silence. When the glass was empty he set it on the steps, and we went back to the far corner of the cellar. The flashlight waited on its shelf by the fuse box, where his Uncle Perly always left it.
When Tommy had seen enough we went outside to play. Tommy was a fun playmate, lively and daring. We’d get inside barrels and roll down a hill, or bomb water bugs with stones at the brook. Sometimes we’d smoke hollow sticks. We were best friends from when we were five until we were ten, despite the fact that I went to the public school in town while Tommy went to school on the air-force base. His mother, Lena, worked there as a secretary, and getting Tommy into the base school must have been a fringe benefit.
On those long summer days, I saw far more of Auntie Jean than of Lena, but it is Lena I remember more. I can clearly picture her in the doorway of their small frame house, lighting a cigarette as she left for work. She’d snap the lighter shut smoothly with one hand, adjust her large patent-leather bag on her shoulder, and mince down the cracked cement steps in her high-heel, sling-back shoes. Her hair was Cleopatra black and teased into a shape that resembled more a hat than a hairdo. The layer of spray that held it in place would have shed rain as well as a tin roof, but Lena was seldom subjected to the elements; she walked from car to building to car to building, rarely stopping long under the sky. At home she did not garden or lie in the sun. She never wore anything but heels and a tight dress, and moved in an aura of smoke and perfume, her face heavily made up, eyes rimmed with dark liner. I realize now that she must have aspired to be a femme fatale, but somewhere along the way had slipped into the pit of tartiness. She projected motel-room sex, which promises so much and leaves so little: plastic cups smeared with lipstick, cigarette butts, crumpled Kleenex — disposable things, Lena among them, hiding her pain as yet another married man rose from her lush body and made hearty, casual conversation.
No wonder she’d kept the children. They, at least, were real. Laurinda, the eldest, was the product of Lena’s only marriage. The two boys, Tommy and Billy, had different fathers, whom they’d never met.
The family’s secrets didn’t end there. For Auntie Jean was not Auntie, but Grandma. Jean was Lena’s mother, not her sister. As a young teenager Jean had become pregnant and, in the manner of the day, left town to bear her illegitimate child. When she returned, the infant was raised as Jean’s sister. The neighbors knew, of course, but no one challenged their story. Back then, one was encouraged to save face.
Despite the rumors, Jean eventually did marry. Perly was no catch, being equal to Jean in social handicap. He was a bit dim, had bad teeth, thick lips, and vaguely cretinous eyebrows. Jean and Perly kept to themselves, joined no church, made no friends, and had no children. They surely would have spent the rest of their lives alone had not Lena, her own marriage now broken, come to live with her “sister.”
Every Thursday night I went over to Tommy’s house to watch Rawhide. I loved the show, but was always nervous about entering that house. The unheated porch was damp and musty, and a powerful odor of Salems and Spam permeated the air. Lena would be doing her nails or reading a movie magazine at the dining-room table, and would wave her fingers through the smoke in greeting. Jean was always at the kitchen sink, and never bothered turning around. In the living room, the TV was always on.
Jean and Lena, I could tell, were dubious about my suitability as Tommy’s playmate. For one thing, the reason I was there to watch Rawhide in the first place was that my family didn’t have a TV — and not because we were poor, but because of some inscrutable brand of pride that neither Lena nor Jean trusted. The same pride also made us eat whole-wheat bread and go to civil-rights demonstrations.
On the other hand, what could they do? I lived right across the street. I kept Tommy busy. I was nice enough, if a bit queer. And I watched Rawhide with rapt attention. Tommy ran around cracking a whip he had made from a stick and some baling twine, but I sat on the edge of the couch, hands folded atop my grubby knees.
By that time of evening, Perly was usually in the cellar, where he kept a bottle hidden. Neither he nor Jean worked anymore; Lena’s paycheck supported them all. Perly was, however, paid a small yearly sum for being caretaker of the reservoir that loomed behind their house. The dike, a fifty-foot-high earthen embankment covered with grass, was only a stone’s throw from the back door. Had it broken, a wave of water would have crashed down on them all like the wrath of God.
I suppose it’s possible that Perly didn’t know Jean’s secret, but surely Lena did. She had married and traveled abroad, both of which required a birth certificate. But the sham had gone on for so long that, to all appearances, Lena believed Jean to be her sister. And Lena must have thought she was protecting her children, who, like her, had nothing of their fathers but a name and some small pieces of luggage called DNA: Do Not Ask; Do Not Answer.
The last time I played with Tommy, I was in fifth grade. We played together less that year, but sometimes, after school, he would speed around on his bike in front of my house, blatting his horn until I emerged.
That day we were at our animal graveyard, fixing it up. We used blue telephone-line insulators for gravestones, outlined the plots with twigs, and stuck flowers in the earth in front of the insulators. Tommy even had some small American flags to mark the graves of “soldiers.”
It started to rain. At first I thought it was Tommy’s spit — he was flapping his lips together to make the sound of a plane — but then the thunder boomed, and Tommy fell, hit by “antiaircraft fire.” The drops came harder, and we ran for the house.
We went down to the cellar and sat on the iron cot tucked underneath a cobwebbed window. The cot was a new addition. (I think Perly may have been banished from Jean’s bed.) Tommy and I pretended the cot was an island, and everywhere else was crocodile-infested water. Tommy was the shipwrecked sailor; I was the crocodile. He would dangle an arm or a leg over the side of the cot to tempt me, and I would try to grab it. This went on until, all at once, a strange hunger possessed me. I seized his leg and wormed my way up it, snarling, while he lay back on the cot, clinging to the mattress. When I’d pulled myself high enough that his foot was clamped between my thighs, I began to rub against it, and found myself unable to stop until a minor but intensely pleasurable tremor released me.
The moment it was over I knew something irreversible had happened. Tommy was staring down at me with a curious, half-triumphant smile. “Let’s go over by the water heater,” he said.
“No, I don’t want to.”
“I’ll tell Auntie Jean what you just did.”
I was worried, but tried to hide it. What had I done? Whatever it was, it was strong and almost certainly forbidden.
“She’s not your Auntie Jean anyway,” I said. “She’s your grandma.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s true. My mother said your aunt is your mom’s mother.”
Tommy worked this out in his head. “Big deal,” he said finally. “My aunt said your father is a commie.”
We looked at each other. We had gone too far, and there was no way to turn back.
Tommy and I went to high school together — the base school went only through junior high — but by tacit consent we ignored our past. We pretended to be strangers. Or at least I did.
In my sophomore year, I went back one day to the reservoir behind Tommy’s house, to the gatehouse there — a square brick tower accessible only by a weathered wooden bridge. The gatehouse rose out of the water on a tall foundation of stone, and where brick met stone there was a three-inch-wide lip. As kids, Tommy and I had stood on that lip and carefully worked our way around the outside of the tower, the water many feet below. Had we fallen, we could have swum to shore, but there were snapping turtles whose bloodthirsty nature Perly had greatly embellished, and the water was deep and dark with tannic decay.
Now I wanted to see if I could still do it — walk around the gatehouse. I set out and made it around two sides. Negotiating the corner to the third (the hardest part), I was startled to find Tommy there on the ledge. He stood with his back to the wall, facing the water, looking straight ahead, as if he hadn’t seen me. I ducked out of sight and began to retreat. But to my fear of heights was added a new terror that made me almost unable to continue. I thought I could feel the earth spinning on its axis. Suddenly, I was afraid of time.
Time had taken the Tommy I’d known and left behind this disappointing teenager — small, bandylegged, and undistinguished. His hair was too short. He drove a rumbling primer-colored Impala jacked up in the back. His boyishness was almost gone, and already a mean and wretched manhood was growing within him.
I spoke my last word to Tommy when, during our senior-graduation party, drunk and stoned, I met him on some basement stairs and failed to avoid a collision. “Hi,” I said. To my horror, he gave me a smile that looked as if he had practiced it countless times in front of the mirror: suggestive, seductive, slow. I scrambled away, appalled that he could think he had any hope of regaining my favor.
Though I like to think I have emerged clean from the sad, squalid swamp of my childhood, I must give Tommy his due. With him I learned something important. As I return now to my young self and, like Tommy, shine a light on her, examining her from every angle, I understand the simple sanity of his game. He insisted, in that place, on naked truth. In the midst of all those secrets, we undressed.