The bologna my dad is frying pops up in the middle and looks like four B-cup boobs. At least it does to me. But then a lot of things look like boobs–clouds, snack cakes, most citrus fruits. They’re pretty much everywhere. Although I’ve never seen the real thing. Just a lot of hints and near misses. I usually settle for staring at the shadows in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Or the plastic mannequin nipples in the J.C. Penney’s young miss department. Last year for my birthday, my dad was going to get me a copy of Jugs, but my mom intercepted on the goal line.
I hear a lot about boobs–sightings, accidental touches, stories about different sizes and shapes. Getting information has become a group effort. It’s pretty much all we talk about on the playground and at basketball practice. We call them reconnaissance missions. Just like the marines. Jason Cavanaugh said he saw a lady’s boobs on Splash Canyon at Lang Waterpark. Some of the burnouts that work there set up a camera at the top of the hill. They take your picture to get your expression just before you go over. This lady’s boyfriend knew about it and lifted up her tube top right before the flash. Jason watched the whole thing from the bottom of the hill. Full frontal.
Reggie and Krogger said some blond girl with a retainer showed them hers in the changing room at T.J. Maxx. They said she walked right up and asked them if they wanted to see her boobs. But I could tell right away they were full of shit. That’s not how it happens. Besides, when I pressed them individually, they both had very different descriptions of what they saw.
My dad’s sausage-link fingers flip the pink slices of bologna over the sizzly sound of butter. He towers above the skillet in his unbuttoned work shirt, “Nick” written in cursive across one of his man-boobs. His belly button is the size of a blowhole. You could fit a D battery in there. His forearms look like hairy thighs. They don’t even flinch when they get splattered. His Semper Fi baseball cap is in a mushroom cloud of bologna smoke. He bought it on our vacation to Paris Island, where in 1956 he spent 18 weeks learning how to kick some Cuban ass. I wanted to buy a cap too, but he said I couldn’t wear the colors until I served my time.
My dad cooks like he’s on a production line. First the butter hits the pan, then the bologna. Then he presses a perfect arc into the meat with the side of the fork. The gash opens like a squinty eye and lets out some heat. He flips each piece twice and puts them on the paper towel to dry. It’s the same every time. I wrote down all the steps in case I have to take over someday.
I sit in my regular seat even though the table is empty. Mom and Molly are on another girls’ weekend. They go on a lot of girls’ weekends. Usually visit Gramma or one of mom’s college friends. Mom says it’s a chance for me and dad to do guy stuff. Sometimes she even leaves us a list of thought starters. It always starts with play catch and ends with Yahtzee. She usually slides in a couple chores too. The first few times, I oiled my glove and taped the handle of my Pete Rose bat. But I stopped doing that after a while.
Dad’s drinking straight out of the carton again. His swallows sound like muffled punches. Mom would kill him if she was home. She has simple men rules–no pissing on the seat, no cussing at sports, no hitting, and no drinking out of the carton. I mean, we have them down, but he is constantly making us look bad. He leaves a grease stain on some kid’s smiling face as he puts the carton back. I feel bad for that boy. He’s lost. Even though he is smiling, you can tell that wherever he is, he is sad. That’s how it is with smiling kids. You never know which ones are lost.
Dad pulls the bologna off the pan and places it on spongy slices of Wonder Bread with mustard on top. He presses the mess together and hands me a sandwich. I stamp a thumbprint square into the middle of mine. We sit across from each other and eat. In silence. I slow down my breathing so we’re doing it at the same time. It’s sort of like talking.
We wait for something to happen but it doesn’t. I want to tell him that I scored 16 points in our last scrimmage. I want to tell him that I found the kid who took my gym bag and almost smashed him in the face in front of a bunch of girls. I want to tell him that I didn’t go through with it. I want to tell him that Mrs. Delomalier said I have potential when it comes to spelling. But I don’t. I just listen to the whistle from my dad’s big Polish nose. When he eats he gets this little whistle going as he exhales. Once you hear it, you can’t stop listening for it. It can be real irritating for mom after a hard day at the office. Sometimes she just eats in the front room with the TV way up. Sometimes she makes us dinner and goes to a restaurant. I don’t really mind dad’s whistle. It’s a man sound. The front door slams open. A sprinkle hits the back of my neck. Skeeter. I shift in my seat as he heads right toward us.
“Nicky–what the fuck? How’s it hanging, man? Carol still–?”
“What’s up, Skeeter?” My dad sounds tired.
“Hey fatboy, what’s going on? You getting laid yet or what?”
Fuck you, Skeeter.
“What’s a matter, Nick, kid don’t talk?”
Skeeter is divorced. He has a scar on his cheek from when his old wife came at him with a piece of a mirror. It looks like a pink worm crawling up his bony face. Above the worm, his black eyes sink way back in his head like stones in a swamp. You can see pieces of his skeleton through his dirty skin and straps of slippery hair. He can’t stand still. He’s always moving around the room, pacing and rocking. His jittery hands have to touch everything. He shakes snow domes, feeds my fish, picks up picture frames and puts them back down. Even when he stops he doesn’t stop. That’s when his tics take over. He makes a weird snorting sound every couple minutes and he blinks harder than you’re supposed to. He is always out of control, like his body doesn’t want him there.
Skeeter will take my dad away. That much I know. He always does. That’s what he comes for. Eventually he’ll bring him back, wounded and dazed, like a POW. Since mom isn’t here, Skeeter will make me cook for them in the middle of the night. I’ll make eggs while he sleeps in my bed. Sometimes I dump goldfish shit into his coffee.
Skeeter jerks across the kitchen and goes down to the basement to get more beers. I chew my fried bologna and think about sex. It doesn’t add up. Jason Cavanaugh told me on the phone that his older brother Teddy was banging his girlfriend Janice. He said they bang all the time when his parents go to UAW conventions. He said they bang before school in Teddy’s Gremlin. Not even in a bed like on HBO. Teddy’s Gremlin has a no driver’s side window and smells like socks and tacos. How can you bang in there? Just to be sure, I looked up sex in Mrs. Delomalier’s huge dictionary in homeroom. Outside of insertion, there was no mention of movement. No banging, that’s for sure. Nothing even close. I told Jason that his brother was way off base but he just laughed like he always does.
Dad stuffs more sandwich in his mouth and says “Want s’more?”
I wait until my mouth is full to answer. We can do that when the women aren’t around.
“Orlando Cepeda. Hit 25 dingers his rookie year.” I hold it up for him to see, careful not to get mustard on Orlando’s face.
“Can’t field worth a squirt of piss though,” dad says.
“Nope,” I say.
“Cepeda? Isn’t he one of them fucking Cubans? They’re all over the league now,” Skeeter pipes in from the stairway. He has three beers. Two for him, one for Dad.
“He’s Puerto Rican–dumbass.” I say it louder than I mean to. Holding up the back of the card, I don’t look up.
“Well, fatboy speaks. And he’s talking shit. Damn, Nicky, that was my kid, I’d learn him a little respect.”
“Well he ain’t, Skeeter.” Dad shoots me a look like cool it. He’s not pissed, he just doesn’t want to deal. Skeeter slams his empty can on the table like it’s supposed to scare me. I know he’s staring at me, but I keep looking at his CAT belt buckle. He puts the second beer in his back pocket and checks his watch like he is going to be late. But you have to be wanted to be late. Whap! Skeeter smacks dad on the shoulder. Motherfucker. Kick his ass, dad. Hold him down, I’ll take a shot. But dad gets up and follows him out the door. Nobody says a word. The house gets even quieter when they leave. I lock the doors and head to my room. From my bed I can hear pops and creaks all over the house. It’s just the wind. But it sounds like someone else is here. Some crazy Cuban with a bomb taped to his chest. I put on my dad’s Semper Fi hat and fold out my list of emergency numbers on the nightstand. I want a Coke but I’m not about to go down to the basement. I go to the kitchen and bring back the boy on the milk carton to keep me company.
No one can tell me what to do now. I should do something. Drink, smoke, toss off, something. Dad said we’re bachelors until the women get back, which means the house rules are off. But I don’t do anything. I don’t mind mom’s rules. The phone rings and I’m glad. I sprint to the kitchen like a commando. It’s Reggie.
“Did you do it?”
“Because I’m not gonna have Whitney kiss you unless you know what you’re doing.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m not talking about your stupid-ass medical book, Kolakowski.”
“I’m talking about the real thing.”
“Listen, Whitney and Lisa are gonna meet us up at the gym at ten o’clock tonight. We’re gonna go behind the convent.”
“Work on some hickeys while you’re at it.”
Hickey isn’t in either of mom’s dictionaries. I try calling Jason Cavanaugh but he’s back at Lang Water Park, probably waiting at the bottom of Splash Canyon with a pair of binoculars. I reach far under my bed and pull out the medical book. The thing must weigh 15 pounds. It’s the only reference book they’d let me check out. Page 157–the vagina, the labia majora, the labia minora, the clitoris, and the vulva. The working parts of the woman. It is an artist’s rendering. A cartoon. Not even a real photo. It looks like a red deer head with two antlers leading to the ovaries. But at least I have the vocabulary words. Like the labia.
The labia are a big deal.
Girls use the labia for insertion. You can’t get insertion without the labia. I have memorized most of the words. Before, the only one I knew was pussy and I didn’t know what that was.
I showed it to Krogger at lunch today. He had no idea what he was looking at. It could have been a pineapple for all he knew. I tried to explain how things worked. I made him read every caption. He even traced the picture on his folder. But he still didn’t get it. I spent most of the time trying to block the lunch lady’s view with my coat. If she knew we were looking at vulvas she would have suspended us.
The phone rings once, then stops. I bet it’s mom, calling to see how I’m doing. Probably got disconnected. She and Molly have been gone for six days. Longer than usual. She asked me if I wanted to go, but dad was yelling at me to bring him a beer in the yard. I knew if I brought it out to him, he’d give me a sip. So I blew her off. I didn’t even see her leave. Plus they were going to see Dixie, mom’s old psycho sorority sister in Florida. Dad calls her a crazy bitch. We don’t like any of mom’s college friends. They’re phonies. They suck up to their bosses and play the role like they are too good for the rest of the world. Dixie is the worst of all. Me and dad hate her visits. She wears way too much perfume, smells like a damn whore, dad says. I tried to describe how whores smell to Jason Cavanaugh one day in math class, but he didn’t get that either.
Dixie has long witch fingers and sings when she speaks. How are yooou Edwarrrrd? Always hugging me. Always putting her boobs right in my face. Dad usually saves me like a marine trapped behind enemy lines.
“Let’s go, Eddie, clean the garage.” As we walk out he’ll whisper, “Everything’s a fucking show.”
“Crazy bitch,” I whisper back.
Dixie is afraid of dad. Whenever she comes to visit she looks at him like she’s at the zoo. Then she whispers stuff to mom that makes mom giggle or hug her. She is like a damn dirty Cuban spy. Always poking around, trying to break a marine’s spirit. She likes to ask me how the family is doing. Then she raises her eyebrows while she waits for my answer. Am I happy? Do I think Molly is happy? I shrug.
I catch Dixie staring at me too. She’s always looking at my arms and my back. You can tell she never played sports. One time she saw a raspberry I got playing strikeouts at the parking lot. She made me tell her the story three times. I was trying to stretch a double, the throw was on line, I knew it was asphalt, but I wasn’t about to let Kroggs tag me out, so I slid to get around him. It was just a wipeout. No big deal. Krogger’s the one who ended up with a bloody nose when I accidentally kicked him in the face. Twice.
Dixie is slow for a college girl. But she knows enough not to piss off dad. She avoids him like the waitresses at Ram’s Horn do when he cusses at them. She barely speaks to him, and when she does she’s overly nice. “I have to tell you Nicholas, your new workbench is absolutely stunning.”
“She has no fucking idea what a good workbench should look like,” he’ll whisper to me.
“Crazy bitch,” I whisper back.
Mom’s friends don’t have tattoos and whistling noses. They don’t work double shifts at tool-and-die shops. They don’t bowl and smoke and cuss at sports when they lose money. They don’t play Lotto or keep the ten dollars the guy at Dunkin’ Donuts mistakenly gives back as change. All of mom’s friends have attached garages and honor roll students. They have button features and polite skin. Mom looks like them. I look like dad. Dad is more extreme. He is hairier. Sweatier. Fatter. Louder. More of a man.
So am I.
It’s nine o’clock and I still don’t know what a hickey is. I sit at the kitchen table, staring at the grease stains on the paper plates, waiting for the definition to appear. I unbutton my shirt and expose my blow hole so I look more like dad. He don’t take no shit from anybody and neither do I. Fuck Reggie and his hickeys. I go to the hallway mirror, close my eyes, tilt my head, open my mouth, raise my forearm to my lips and make concentric circles with my tongue. Deep wet circles. According to Reggie, that’s how you do it. He says six circles count as one French kiss. I complete three kisses and grab a sock to wipe off my arm. Done.
I sprint to my room, do a Bruce Lee kick onto my bed, and put on my Quiet Riot album to celebrate. “Bang Your Head.” First song, side one. I jump on my bed and smash my raw, ripping pillow guitar into an imaginary amplifier. I jump down and roll on the floor until the carpet burns my back. The drums pound faster than my heart. There are no holes in that sound. It’s constant chaos. It almost hurts. When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t give a shit about anything. You can’t even tell if your mom and dad are screaming, or if the house is silent.
Bang your head
Metal health will drive you mad
Bang your head
Metal health will drive you mad
I move to the bathroom and put gel in my hair and aftershave on my balls. Jason said his brother Teddy does that for his girlfriend. I think he’s crazy because the shit burns. I brush my teeth and pop in about forty Tic Tacs. Mom’s to-do list is still in my pocket. I make sure the security timer for the front-room lamp is set, and the heat is turned down. Before I leave, I stop on the landing.
When marines go off to war they line up on a battleship and wave to their loved ones. It’s an important tradition, one of the proudest moments of a grunt’s life. I wedge a comb in the back-door deadbolt and hop the fence.
On the way to the gym I pass the park where my mom used to take me to go on the swing sets. It has a real World War I cannon, but somebody spray-painted “bite me” on the tip. The slides are rusted out now. Swings are gone. Nobody goes there anymore. I hop the last fence and see Reggie and the girls smoking by the steps of the gym. Whitney has red hair like the mannequins at Penney’s. I can smell strawberry lip gloss if I lean into her, so I do. We walk behind the convent with Reggie and Lisa. No one speaks. It is like a robbery or a funeral. I wish I was still wearing dad’s Semper Fi cap.
For the first time in a long time I’m not horny. Fucking figures. I keep trying to imagine what it will be like to kiss Whitney, but all I see is black. I can’t remember anything I practiced. So I just concentrate on sucking in my gut. “We’re gonna go by the bike racks. You guys hang out here.” Reggie shoots me a look like don’t fuck up. I nod. I’m not afraid of his scrawny ass. I should just take a shot at him right here and now. But Whitney grabs my hand and everything stops. Me and Whitney sit down inside a huge tractor tire that is half sunk into the ground. It smells like piss and pot. She sits on her knees like a cheerleader. I sit Indian-style and pick at my shoes.
“Listen Whitney, I’ve only kissed a few girls before,” I lie. She nods.
“And I don’t know how to give you a hickey or anything. I don’t know what Reggie’s been saying.”
I can tell she’s looking at me, but I keep picking at my shoes. “So if you wanna take off that’s cool. I’ll just hang here for a while, hop some fences home.”
I look up and Whitney looks confident as she unwraps a piece of Juicy Fruit and puts it on her tongue. “I heard your parents are getting divorced.”
“It’s no biggie. Mine are too.”
“But mine aren’t.”
“Whatever, Eddie. I heard your mom like kidnapped your sister.”
She moves forward and puts her chubby Juicy Fruit tongue in my mouth. It is soft and sweet. We make six concentric circles. I count them. A French kiss. Whitney stops the kiss and lights up a cigarette. The tire gets real smoky.
I get up dizzy. I wish Reggie was around so I could fight him now. Whitney bolts without looking at me. “Cool,” I say, and turn. I walk back home carrying my boots so no Cubans know what I’ve been up to. I cut across three different yards to avoid the park.
I open the back door and put my comb back in my pocket. House still smells like bologna and Skeeter. I can still taste Whitney’s Juicy Fruit so I don’t brush my teeth. I lie in bed and try to remember if I tilted my head to the right or did she. Then boom. The front door busts open followed by a big meaty thud. A second of silence. Now I can hear his big car-start coughs. I’m sure he’s facedown on the landing. He’s either laughing or crying. Probably bleeding too. He needs a Kleenex. I should pick him up and help him to the bathroom. I should steady his legs while he pisses. I should shake it for him and zip him back up. I should put his wallet and keys on the nightstand, and undo his shirt and loosen his belt and take off his shoes. I should roll him on his stomach and leave two Tylenols by a glass of ice water. I should do what I do every time my dad falls. But I don’t. Instead I close my eyes and watch Whitney put that piece of Juicy Fruit on her tongue. I check to see if her eyes are open. I squint so she can’t tell mine are too. I can tell I’m doing it sloppier than you’re supposed to. I want to apologize but I don’t. I want to thank her but I don’t do that either. I try to hug her. Whitney pushes me away and lights a cigarette. She gets up and I watch her walk away until she disappears.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Emily Flake.