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It never occurred to me until now that this is why I hate birthdays. Every year I am reminded of that sorrow, of that loss; as though every year I am again told I can’t have what I want, that if I get what I want it will be destroyed just as I am growing comfortable with it. So I keep the ruined boyfriend and the bills. I recycle the empty beer bottles and wait for more to line up under the fridge. These are the things I expect, my friends get what they deserve and I get more disappointment.
We used to call them Siwash. Hell, what did we know? P.C.? That’s just what they were called. It wasn’t like we meant anything by it except that’s what we called them. They were dark and short and stank, hoo wee! Did they ever. They couldn’t bathe you know and they were walking around wearing animal skins and eating blubber and their teeth would rot out because they didn’t have dentists and I can’t begin to imagine what it was like when they took their clothes off, if they took their clothes off, and got in bed for the night.
The dominoes were black with white denominations tinged ochre from cigarette tar. They stayed in a box on an open shelf in the kitchen with other board games; Pit, Scoop, Sorry; games with cards that required table space hard to find with fatty elbows, greasy coffee stains and chewed fried chicken bones about. The endless rocks on the beach were easier to clear than all that. Smoothed pebbles or sometimes the big rock down the shoreline served for stepping out all the dominoes into marshal order, a regiment Carmichael, and sometimes Ray, would arrange, yellow spots facing the sparkling water.
Sailboats with snapping white sheets tipped by, headed for the harbor where they’d shore-up, lashing ropes over the stubby metal Ts bolted to the docks, all lined up, aligned and proper, cleaned by hired help, scrubbed white and sharp, the below deck beds made fit for another set of bikinis. Carmichael had never been on a sail boat. He expected he never would be. At twenty seven he will be invited to join a co-worker on her not-boyfriend’s sail boat loaned to him by his ex-girlfriend’s father, a man who will be disappointed his daughter’s ex isn’t more like Carmichael.
Carmichael will never realize this. He’ll shake the older man’s hand all the while admiring the not-boyfriend’s ability to smile and gain the older man’s trust, enough trust, anyway, to induce the older man into letting the not-boyfriend take the sail boat any day he felt like it. On that day, when Carmichael is twenty seven, Carmichael will decide he is not an ass kisser, no matter the perks, though he will watch the not-boyfriend closely to make sure he knows what ass kissers, generally speaking, Do. Carmichael, setting dominoes on the beach, doesn’t know what an ass kisser is.
Ray brushes the seat of his tan pants before he sits on a round, chipped rock. His pants remind Carmichael of an old man, the seam where the zipper ends points down, exaggerating his crotch, and the knees are stained. Ray loved to play marbles. Carmichael talks while he arranges the pieces. “My dad says there’s going to be a war in Nicaragua. The terrorists are going to get it and we’re who’s gonna give it to them because everyone else is too chicken shit.” Ray lifts a rock and sticks his finger into the crabs, crushing a spotted baby.
“My momma,” said Ray, “was saying we oughta stay out of war.” A larger crab, still no bigger than Ray’s thumb, snipped at him as he stirred wet granular dirt. The crab moved behind a good skipping stone, slipping under until Ray’s hand lifted the rock. Fists raised, the crab motioned at Ray but Ray was bored and let the rock drop. “What do you think?” asked Ray. “Dunno,” said Carmichael, “I wish we lived in New York.” As though New York were impervious, as though people in New York didn’t talk of war. “Are you going back?” Carmichael squinted.
Gulls canted overhead. A teen on a jet ski whooped at girls basking at the point around the bend of the island, out of sight for Carmichael and Ray but they knew the girls were there, the girls were always there, all summer into the fall, until the sun was gone and the Sound grew breezy with the Pineapple Express. A domino slipped from Carmichael’s fingers and knocked the start of a run, pieces crashed into each other and Carmichael looked on dejected. “Now you gotta do it again,” laughed Ray. “Shut up,” said Carmichael. He flicked the other dominoes.
“If I get married,” Ray offered, “I won’t cry.” He held a seaweed whip and cracked it against a toppled fir tree. Carmichael walked the wet tree like a tightrope until it submerged in the Sound. The tide was coming in. They had about twenty minutes to get back up the hill or they would be trapped by water. Carmichael knew they could shin up the cliff banking the beach. His grandpa had told him how a person drowns and turns into fish food then the fish gets caught on a hook and taken home, flayed and fried for dinner.
“When you catch a fish, you remember what I told you. Fish food: people, kittens, your shit you flush, all that crap and flesh, fish food.” “We should get,” said Carmichael before jumping from the tree. His breath was blown on landing and his feet stung from impact, hundreds of pointy rocks and barnacles jabbing through the thin rubber soles. “Yeah,” Ray picked his steps around certain rocks, directed toward the old cement dock. “What if the ferry still ran?” asked Carmichael. “We’d be rich,” said Ray. “My dad says so.” “Really?” “Sure. City folks would come for our apples.”
“You have apples?” “No, I mean, the apples on the island.” “Oh.” The beach leveled and water rode over it almost to the cliff and the boys jumped through the thin lick of water, splashing at a flock of sandpipers and sending them to the air for a moment. The sandpipers snapped into the sky, circled, and landed in unison like a sheet whipped from a line and falling to a lawn. Carmichael worried he disturbed the birds, worried they already pulled food from the area they were in, worried birds would always fly away though he didn’t mean harm.
The dominoes rattled in the box as Carmichael hiked the path to the road behind Ray. When they reached the road Carmichael asked, “Now what are you doing?” Ray shrugged. “I gotta go home, I guess.” If they were in the city Carmichael would ask Ray to play more but living on the island there wasn’t much else to do. “Are you going to play Atari?” asked Carmichael. “Maybe,” said Ray, “Mom wants me to study for school.” Carmichael stalled. He followed Ray in the gravel along the road, “What’s for dinner?” Ray always knew things like dinner in advance.
“Tuna melts, I think.” “Do you have the Mario Brothers?” “No. I asked for it for Christmas.” “Can I come play?” Ray scowled. They had reached his driveway, a long, coniferous tree-lined dirt road the roped curves and hills to his house. “Not today.” Carmichael shook the domino box and, in a tone of differential carelessness said, “I mean when you get the game.” “I guess.” Carmichael used to follow Ray home for dinner and games but Ray’s parents made Ray stop it. Ray didn’t like Carmichael to recognize him at school, either. Now, friends by and for convenience only.
The streets on the island were few, a handful of long, winding roads that intersected only when necessary for residents to survive. The road passing Carmichael’s house started at one side of the island, ascended a hill, was intersected by a main road, descended and doing so forked into Marina Drive and Bay Road. Jeremiah and his posse of dirty middle schoolers were walking across the fork, flashy new sedans roared around them, traveling too fast to slow in time but agile enough with the latest engineering to swerve smoothly. Carmichael saw the boys and was sure they saw him.
Jeremiah was spitting loogies across the street and the other kids were waiting to try and beat his distance. Jeremiah’s technique was to lean back with his fists clenched at his waist, he’d inhale deep, scrape up a wad of phlegm, tongue it to his teeth and purse his lips and, as he lunged forward, hurtling air and spit. “Huhwah” was the sound he made when he thought he didn’t spit far enough. Carmichael had practiced alone but could never spit so far as across the street. The other boys all hocked loogies but none went as far as Jeremiah.
Carmichael wished Ray had let him play video games instead of leaving him to walk home and see Jeremiah on the hill, the conceit that Ray could change Carmichael’s path. As he walked to the house he saw the driveway was littered with lawnmower parts. His mom was running a rag over the thing that turned the belt that made the blade spin. Her hair was curling out of a banana clip and her apron cinched the rolls of her stomach as she crouched to the mower and tightened the metal thing into place and looped the belt over it.
Dirt crunched under his shoes but his mom didn’t look up from her job. “Mom,” said Carmichael. “What you need?” “You fix dinner yet?” His mother fitted the top of the mower and pushed the machine at him as though she was going to roll him over. “Try this, will ya. I can’t stand to have it not work again.” Carmichael slipped the plastic pull in his palm and yanked, yanked, yanked and the motor turned restless. “Damn,” she said and tipped the nose of the mower to look underneath. “I’m going to hold it up and you try again.”
Leverage was difficult with his mother holding the mower up but Carmichael pulled. The mower sputtered. “Maybe it’s fuel?” he asked. “You don’t think I didn’t check that?” “I dunno.” “Try again, kid.” He pulled the line and the motor took hold. His mother’s stance was tilted with a smile and she bonked her fist against his shoulder like they were war buddies, survivors of the mower. “Turn it off before it sucks all the gas,” she said. “I’ll fix you up something good. How’s that sound?” “Fried Baloney?” He shoved the mower to the blackberry side of the house.
Without the mower the blackberries would eventually strap over the roof and take the house down with purple pulp. Carmichael’s dad devoted days to chopping them back, using the mower like the rich folks hired men to use weed-whackers, leaning back to leverage the heavy machine over the vines. Carmichael would eventually be handed this task. His back would ache at night, his bed with the pressboard plank frame would become more comfortable than he could imagine and Carmichael would begin spending his leisure time reading with blankets up to his chin, cozy and ignoring the world, but not yet.
He kept having to sniffle as he watched his mother chop sweet potato and line it in a glass baking pan. She tossed a bag of marshmallows at him, “Open these.” He tore the bag with his teeth and sniffled, quickly plucking a mallow from the bag. “Don’t spoil your appetite.” She took the bag and dumped half the contents on the sweet potato and shoved the pan in the oven. “I can’t wait,” said Carmichael, drumming his fingers on the counter. “What else?” his mother asked absently while perusing the fridge. “Tuna melts?” “Go ask your father first, kiddo.”
Carmichael’s father and mother sat across from each other not talking, the sound of dinner, the way his father held his breath when he bit down, the way his mother licked her lips after every bite, the tink of flatware hitting Goodwill ceramic plates with mismatched decorative trim. Carmichael tried to be as quiet as possible. He didn’t want to add to the noise. There was some pleasure to listening to his parents’ routine sounds, also, too, the satisfaction in knowing he drew no attention. Invisible, he could almost not be there at all and, in not being there, happy.
“You get the lawnmower fixed?” Carmichael’s father asked. “Did it give you trouble?” “Not any more than you do.” They smiled, some recognition of years together, an understanding Carmichael tried to ignore. Carmichael took his plate to the sink, his parents stayed at the table, not noticing his departure for what he could tell, and he went to his room. He lifted his mattress and pulled out a comic book, not Richie Rich, not Fantastic Four, not Spiderman. The comic was worn. The cover had been folded back too many times and nearly ripped as Carmichael opened it to study it again.
He was beyond reading the text. Carmichael loved the illustration, the lines, the ka-pow and lightning bolts of revelation and pain. The coloring was printed off line, image blurred against the color match, spots matrix to the left of proper and that, too, made the art fascinating. Carmichael knew people in the city kept their comics in plastic slip covers. If he lived in the city he’d use covers, he’d catalog his comics in special boxes with alphabetical dividers, and he’d get a job so he could buy subscriptions, buy every comic he ever wanted, including number ones.
Number One issues were always prized. Carmichael overheard as much said by the older kids, the kids with money, the kids whose parents didn’t mind them buying comic books, kids with allowances. Carmichael wished he had an allowance. He had asked his dad once and his dad said, “You’ll get an allowance the day you get to work around here.” Carmichael tried to prove his worth by doing dishes and cleaning the fireplace but it wasn’t enough. His mother said, “We just can’t afford it right now.” So Carmichael stopped doing chores and went back to walking and reading comics.
He wished he had super powers. What kid doesn’t? Super hearing, super strength. But he didn’t want to transform. He hated that the Silver Surfer was silver. He didn’t like when Batman put on his suit. Why, thought Carmichael, did Hulk have to be Hulk? They start out normal, they start out average, but then they change into something they aren’t. Carmichael decided if he stepped in toxic waste or was bit by something powerful or simply woke up with powers, he would not let himself change. He would rather not have powers than have to transform to use them.
Ray argued the point. He said that was the whole point of a super power – to change. He grumbled that Carmichael was afraid of his own skin. To be a super hero a person has to be comfortable enough to accept himself however he appears. Carmichael hated Ray for saying it. One friend was all he needed. But Carmichael knew Ray wasn’t really his friend. Ray would only talk to him when Ray had no one else. Of course Ray wouldn’t mind if he changed, he already was changeable to suit his needs at the cost of a true friendship.
The next morning Carmichael was woken by the sound of the lawnmower. Carmichael shrugged on his jacket and looked out the window, rain. Not enough to stop a good Washingtonian but still raining. The mountains locked the rain to the Sound. Carmichael decided to go to the waterfront. Rain splashed down his collar from tree branches, huge drops that soaked through his shirt and clammed his neck. Being in the rain mattered little to Carmichael. Once on the beach he sat on the fallen tree trunk and watched the birds. He wondered what it would be like as a duck.
Ducks are oily, he thought, they have hollow bones, or was that birds that fly, or wait, ducks fly, so they have hollow bones. I don’t remember having eaten duck but maybe I have. I wonder if I liked it. Maybe Mom remembers. Dad says he likes duck. He used to hunt them. All the ducks are in the Harbor. Just gulls out today. There’s a sandpiper there. I hear a woodpecker in the forest. I wonder what a mocking bird sounds like. Carmichael felt cold wind through the hole in his sole and thought about his parents’ usual reaction.
How’d that happen? Carmichael thought he was the only person to know how to get to this section of beach besides Ray. But there it was; a bonfire with older kids, high schoolers, laughing and crushing cans of grape soda in shows of strength. Carmichael pretended they weren’t there. They kept laughing, occasionally a girl squealed and Carmichael heard her feet scattering rocks as she tried to lung away from one of the guys. The guys said things like, “Watch this,” and, “You gotta know about.” “When you look at it this way,” one said. Carmichael tried not to hear.
Their noise reminded Carmichael he was alone. His butt felt cold on the tree, the damp was seeping in, his feet ached, toes frozen, and he felt foolish looking around, watching birds sitting watching him, the tide going out, leaving behind its smell, those kids cracking jokes he didn’t understand so that he felt he was eavesdropping when he was the one who was always there, not them, and there was nothing he could do about any of it. He cursed them, he imagined them exploding, catching fire, realizing it was useless, because they would die soon enough, and leaving.
But they didn’t leave. “Look at that!” “And she told me.” “What did you do?” “I never thought it would be like that!” “Don’t tell anyone, okay?” Promises made and broken in an instant and Carmichael began to think he should join them. Maybe they had hotdogs. Maybe they would tell him a joke he could repeat to Ray and then Ray would be his friend all the time. Carmichael dropped from the tree and brushed his pants off. On the road, he knew he would never fit in. He felt certain that his life may as well be over.
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