Behind his house where two garages faced two others at the place where the alley stopped mid-block, Chris hid out in brush thick and high enough to hide a crouching adolescent who could peer out at neighbors in their yards or strangers on the more distant sidewalk but who would not be seen by them if he sat still. Even if he moved he would not be seen by them unless on a windless afternoon or evening after supper they saw the branches tremble and the leaves shiver and they ventured to take a closer look.
Chris spent a lot of hours per week in those low weedy bushes, unplanted and untended, and in the present springtime barren, unflowered. Sometimes he even crouched there unsees, immobile, like a boyish Buddha with a cowlick, host to spiders and ants, friend of twigs and hard soil, while neighborhood boys played basketball in the pocked and cracked apron of the farthest garage and he watched them through tiny openings among the leaves as through a camera obscura, breathing in the bright colors of tee shirts and shorts, tasting the beads of sweat and the slapping hands, listening to the dazzling and chaotic patterns, the dizzying architecture of movement like a skyline during an earthquake.
Chris shifted, prepared to rise, to go to his home and face the music. He owned no timepiece but he knew that supper was served and perhaps already cold and he knew there’d be hell to pay to his mother for being late. He was scared and he had no good excuse to offer for his tardiness other than the truth, and he couldn’t tell her that. How could he? How could he tell her that on this day of days, this the last day of his thirteenth year, his tongue had tasted an earlobe for the first time? No, how could he tell her that his fingers had thrummed soft little toes, felt the sharp edges of nails not his own? No, no . . . and how could he tell her that, most amazing of all, most unforgettably and magically — indeed, how could he tell her? — he was late because in the basement rec room of Karen’s little house his fingertip had for the first time circumscribed something swollen and firm under a soft cotton shirt, something alive and surprisingly pointed and hard as a ginger snap, something his finger could see because his eyes weren’t permitted access despite his pathetic eager puppydog face and his cherubic smile.
Hey Chris, Karen had intoned, her hands sifting his hair. Chris. Her voice was soft but commanding. Hey Christian.
Huh? he breathed. His hand went to her face, traced her jawline.
You’re really some Christian, Mister Christian.
I am? What are you talking about?
You know, you’re leading me right into sin, don’t you Mister Christian? You are one naughty Christian, don’t you know.
He looked directly at her, smiled, rasped in a scratchy voice, Yeah? Well you’re the one dangling this little, um, apple at me, you know.
Uh huh. I’m not giving it to you though. You can’t have it.
I can’t? Not even a little peek?
Okay, he said. Not yet anyway.
How do you explain to an overweight ogre that such clever adolescent repartee with its attendant bursts of mindless giggles entitles you to lateness for supper, that mealtime tardiness or any other for that matter is fully justified by such harmless dabbling in nature’s tender mysteries? Chris struggled up, patted off some of the dirt from the seat of his jeans. You can’t, he thought.
Stretching, taking a deep breath, he mumbled, Gotta go sometime.
Shit, he added.
He walked down the half alley and entered the house he shared with his parents and a young sister, careful to guide the door to a silent close. As he climbed the three stairs to the main floor he heard a chair scrape the kitchen floor, his mother rising. Without hesitation he turned a corner and entered the kitchen, he appraised the scene as he approached his mother; she, large as a truck, standing there, hands on hips, glaring at him, lips tight, little Becky, his sister, already cowering over a plate of beans untouched, some chips, and a half eaten hot dog, an empty plate and a glass of milk, and a space where the old man would be sitting were he home. It didn’t look good.
Where the hell were you?
Out with friends. We didn’t have a watch.
Out with what friends?
You, she said, turning to Becky. Go to your room. The little girl slunk out of her chair and rushed past them and disappeared. Two paces separated Chris from his mother and she eliminated one of them. Before he could prepare for it he felt a blow alongside his head, his ear seemed to rupture like a blown truck tire, and a shrill ring blasted his consciousness. He lost his balance and fell sideways against the refrigerator, bright fractured lights darting across a black void behind his eyeballs, he almost crumpled to the floor but caught himself, righted himself. He opened his eyes, tears were falling involuntarily, and what he saw through their distorting prism was a face crazy and otherworldly, an arm swinging. He ducked but it caught him at the scalp line and he lost his balance again.
She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. You come in here late for supper and you tell me you’re out with friends, she shouted. I ask you what friends and you say just friends, you sassy little son of a bitch, you. Who do you think you are mouthing off to your mother like that, God damn you. She threw him away like a demented wrestler discarding a dummy. Off balance, he bounced off a wall and she caught him and he felt his hair in her hands and then felt the first contact of his head against the unyielding wall.
A chute opens and Chris slides like a torrent into an alternate universe, a universe at once familiar and startling and banal, a universe in which he finds all sensations suddenly and shatteringly indistinguishable, a universe uninhabited by any person but onle force and effect, the force malicious unrelenting and incontestable that fuses power and crushing sound into a furious unity with pain and thrust and imprecation, the whole emanating from a single source like darkness from nothing so that it (the effect) seems to the boy that it’s the universe itself condemning him to hell in an incessant and reverberant propulsion that continues until he picks himself up from the floor and realizes that it was his mother doing all of that.
Now get upstairs to your room and don’t come down until I call you tomorrow morning, you sassy little shit, she bawled, and as he ran past her, mewling, with his arms covering his downturned head, one hand tight upon the other, she added, I’ll teach you to be a smart ass, you little son of a bitch.
The boy tore up the oak stairs, slipping once and banging his shin against a step but recovering quickly enough, he hurled himself the few paces to his room and caromed off the doorframe and dove onto the floor where he struggled to burrow legs first under his bed, his sanctuary for years, his refuge and his strength, his holy abode. When he started using it on such occasions as this, he was small enough to fall asleep and even change positions. Now that he had to squeeze in, his stay was temporary but nevertheless consoling. A sob escaped him and he felt the damp from his eyes and a stream of snot on his arms that his face rested on. From nipple to snot, he thought without mirth. From greenery to musty worn bedroom rug. All in such a short time, he mused. In just minutes, it seemed. He wondered, How does it all happen?