The Midwest |

The Boys

by Scott Fenton

The other boys, pulling off their cherry red swimsuits—Luis lingered in the locker room, watching them. Wade’s Adam’s apple bulged in his throat. Fresh from the shower, Akaash shook water droplets off the ends of his hair like dew. Patrick squeezed into a tiny pair of shorts, his soft belly the golden brown of a glazed donut. Luis took credit for Patrick’s tan. The other boys never remembered to pack their own sunblock. Every morning the other boys took handfuls of Luis’s lotion and rubbed themselves down. “Hey man, thanks, wow,” Patrick would say, before turning to the others. “I love this guy. This guy comes through.”

Luis was always the first back in his street clothes when evening came and the pool closed for the day. The other boys moved as a pack. The other boys did whatever they wanted and got away with it. If they’d had any supervision at the country club pool, the boys would have been fired by now. Just today, Akaash loaded his squirt gun to shoot at the sunbathing girls when they weren’t looking. Wade pushed Donica into the deep end as a joke, pulled her under. Patrick, sitting above the glittering green pool, said to the others over the Walkie-Talkie, “That one. Her. Pink sunglasses. I hope she drowns. I hope she chokes. I call mouth-to-mouth.”

In the parking lot the other boys were talking about what trouble they might get into tonight. Wade’s parents were out of town, and they’d left a fully stocked refrigerator. “They won’t care if we drink the shitty stuff,” Wade said. The air, thick and wet. The asphalt shimmering in the heat. “You coming?” Patrick asked Luis, who was busy fingering the lock on his bike chain.

“Is there room?” Luis said. Wade’s truck barely had three seats.

“It’s a tight fit, but we’ll squeeze,” Patrick said. “Akaash can sit on my lap.” He kept a straight face for a few suspended seconds before he burst into laughter, and Akaash said, “Yeah, ha ha, I bet you fucking want me to. For real.”

Luis didn’t need his seatbelt. He was tucked warmly between Akaash and Patrick, his thighs pressed against theirs. “Donica needs to lighten the fuck up,” Akaash said. “It was a joke. You wouldn’t do that to her if you didn’t like her, you know?”

“She’s not hot enough, not worth the drama,” Patrick said. He dug his nails into the flesh of an orange. The sticker on it said Lil Sweetheart. It hissed with each new strip he tore, juice dribbling down into his palm. “Vitamin C,” he said, and tossed a fistful of peelings out the passenger side window.

“I can’t take you anywhere,” Wade said. “You’re a barbarian.”

“Okay, chill,” Patrick said. “Shit’s biodegradable.” He wiped his hand on his shorts, threw an arm around Luis’s shoulder. “You awake, man?” His arm was hairless. He shaved his body for swim team, everything below the neck. “Nodding off or something?”

“I’m awake,” Luis said. “I’m here.”

The boys drove through Dairy De-Lite, the menu bright white against the blackening sky. Burgers and fries all around. A chocolate milkshake for Patrick, who was craving something sweet. Wade sped off toward the pick-up window before hearing the total. “He does this all the time,” Patrick said to Luis. “Dine and dash. It’s pretty funny.” At the second window, the boys swore they didn’t have the cash. It was an honest mistake. So sorry, wow—Wade must have left his wallet in the back pocket of some other pair of jeans.

The cashier said, “Just take the food. Get out of here.”

As they drove away, Patrick popped the lid off his shake and slurped it down. “Fuck, man,” he said. “Faster. I gotta take a piss, okay? I’m about to bust.” Akaash, meanwhile, buried his hand in the fast food bag, searching for stray fries.

“Bitch, don’t touch my fries,” Wade said.

“What’s mine is yours, motherfucker,” Akaash said.

The boys spilled out of the truck and kicked off their shoes at Wade’s front door one by one. Patrick’s hula girl flip flops, the hula girl quickly fading. Akaash’s too-big tennis shoes, laces fraying at the ends. Patrick went to take a leak. Wade left in search of beer.

In Wade’s bedroom, Mountain Dew bottles, brown with tobacco spit, collected dust on the dresser next to a row of baseball trophies. Luis sat on the bare mattress while Akaash lay on his back on the carpet, feeding himself French fries inch by inch.

“Is there something, like, wrong with you? Mentally?” Akaash said. He readied another fry, dragged it through the ketchup, but the ketchup missed his mouth and landed square on his chin. “Fuck,” he said. “That was offensive.” He wiped away the sauce. Luis watched him lick it off his finger.

Patrick came into the bedroom still zipping himself up. “Ever take a piss that feels better than sex?” He landed next to Luis on Wade’s mattress, where the Dairy De-Lite haul sat waiting for him.

“Don’t be fucking gross,” Akaash said. “I’m eating, dude.”

“The human body isn’t gross,” Patrick said. “It’s a miracle.” His burger was so big he had to hold it with two hands. “The Monster,” he said.

Akaash said, “The fries are better at Dairy De-Lite, I fucking told you.”

“But QuikBurger has the good dipping sauces,” Patrick said. “That honey roasted barbecue.” The point was moot—they weren’t allowed at QuikBurger anymore. They’d already hit all three locations with their dine-and-dash scheme. At the Oceanside store, location number three, the manager caught onto their scam and threatened to call the police if the boys ever showed their faces at a QuikBurger again. He couldn’t wait to see them in handcuffs, he’d said.

“That guy was fucking gay,” Akaash said. “I bet he does want us in handcuffs.”

Patrick had something to say, but his mouth was full, and he was going in for another bite. By the time Wade appeared with the six pack he’d promised, Patrick’s burger was gone. All that was left in the wrapper were the bits of lettuce he’d plucked off and the wet pink tomato.

“Bonfire at the Boneyard tonight,” Wade said, armed with the kind of cologne that came in an aerosol can. “We going?” His scent was called Real Tuff. He sprayed a full five seconds of mist out into the bedroom before he stepped into it.

“Jesus fuck,” Akaash said. “Did you have to aim that right at my fries? I can’t eat these. Trying to fucking poison me. Thanks. The fuck.”

Already, Patrick was double-fisting tallboys. “Who’s going to be there?” he said.

“Some girls,” Wade said. “Donica. Summer.”

“Boring,” Akaash said.

“Donica’s nude was your wallpaper for like a month, though.”

“It was not my fucking wallpaper. I don’t know where you got that.”

“You’re just pissy because Summer doesn’t want to fuck you,” Wade said.

“Yeah, well, she’s probably fucking racist,” Akaash said. “I’m hot as fuck.”

“And maybe she heard the chicken fingers story,” Wade said.

“That never happened,” Akaash said. “Fuck you. We don’t talk about that.”

“I wanna know what this guy thinks,” Patrick said. He scooted over on the mattress, wrapped an arm around Luis’s waist. He pulled Luis close, so close Luis could feel the prickle of Patrick’s stubble against his cheek. “My guy,” Patrick said. He smelled like a deep fryer, warm and golden brown. “You with us, man? You good?”

“I’m good,” Luis said. His beer was nearly empty. He hated the aftertaste, and the only way to make it go away once he’d started was to drink more.

“He’s fucking bored,” Akaash said. “He’s trying to figure out how to blow us off and go to some better party.”

“Don’t put him on blast like that,” Wade said. “He just likes to take everything in. You know what he needs? A shot. We all need a shot.” There was raspberry vodka hidden in Wade’s desk. Wade held the bottle by the neck. He could be delicate when he wanted to. He could pour carefully.

“This is the expensive shit,” he said. “You’re welcome.”

The boys drank from little rinse-and-spit cups at Wade’s bathroom sink. In the mirror, Akaash licked the shadow of mustache above his lip. Not a drop would be wasted. 

“One more,” Patrick said, “for the road?”

“Why do you always have to have two of everything, man?” Wade said. “Fine. But you owe me.”

“Shit,” Patrick said, patting himself down. “I must have left my cash in my other pants or something.”

The vodka burned even after Luis swallowed.

On the drive out to the Boneyard, the boys decided tonight would be Akaash’s night. They would suggest a game of truth or dare, and when Summer chose dare, they would make her follow Akaash into the woods. A boy and a girl went into those woods together and came back glazed with sweat, glowing. “In your case,” Wade said, “she can think of it as an act of charity.” Akaash didn’t care what she thought of it. He’d been waiting all summer to get some. He called it a drought, but Patrick leaned in to Luis’s ear and breathed the word “virgin.”

Luis had never seen the Boneyard in person before. Junked cars littered the open field, rust orange, thick bushes of moss feeding on their hoods. If you started digging out here, Wade said, you could find fossilized beer cans from the Eighties, maybe earlier. In the woods, boys carved the names of their conquests into the trees, a tradition that went back decades. Megans. Brittanys. Wade swore he’d carved Donica’s name just last week. “She’s, like, barely a five, man,” Patrick said. “A six if it’s nighttime, I guess. But nothing to brag about.” Patrick had lost count of how many girls he’d notched. He could recite the J’s, at least, off the top of his head: Jenny, Julia, Jessica. At the Boneyard, Patrick carried a pocketknife with his condoms. Patrick came prepared.

The bonfire—growing and growing, spitting embers. Luis couldn’t tell who was tending the fire, who’d started it or who would stamp it out at the end of the night. He didn’t know who hosted these parties. The busboys from the country club bar had just gotten off. Still in uniform, they threw wood into the fire that the fire didn’t need, their sleeves rolled up, their ties loosened. “What’s up, Randy?” Wade said. Two different busboys turned around, answering to the same name.

The girls from the pool? Spoiled, Luis thought them—Donica and Summer and the rest of the sunbathing girls arrived early every morning to claim chairs under the umbrellas even though they never opened them. The girls didn’t need the shade, but they wouldn’t let anyone else have it, either. They fed the flames now with whatever they could find in the trunk of Summer’s car. Beauty magazines. Her chemistry lab notebook. Proofs of last year’s yearbook photo, her face melting in the heat. “I swear to God,” Summer said, “that photographer gave Ava S. a second take. Where was my second take?”

The man with the big blue cooler who watched them—he worked at the country club, too. Golf course maintenance, responsible for the greenness of the grass. Luis almost didn’t recognize him without his standard-issue red polo. The flicker of his phone played over his face, a video of people jumping off banisters and getting hit in the nuts.

“This is good shit, man,” he told Luis. He was in his twenties, but he hung out with the high schoolers. He could give them booze for a fair price. What could they ever give him? What would they ever want to? All day he drove from hole to hole in the maintenance golf cart, drinking forties out of paper bags and tossing the amber-colored bottles off the cart path and into the pond below. He was supposed to clean the pond, but every time Luis saw the water, it was scummed over.

“She’s your girl, right?” the maintenance man asked Luis, and nodded his head in Donica’s direction. Her fringe bikini top and cowboy boots meant she was trying too hard—Luis thought so, anyway—but she had something the maintenance man wanted, something he hungered for.

“No, she’s not.”

“But you fuck her. Respect. I’ll stand down. Let me know when you’re done with her, though. I’ve had my eye on that girl since before the beginning of swimsuit season. What’s her name?”

“I don’t know,” Luis said.

“Oh,” the maintenance man said. “Right on. I feel.”

Luis watched the boys, and the boys watched the girls. Around the fire, Wade sniffed after the girls like a dog, Akaash close behind him. Sunglasses hung from their necks. Wade’s shirt came off first—his always came first. His chest, sticky underneath. “My abs are solid for sure,” he said to any girl who’d listen, “but I’m the most proud of my quads.” When Akaash saw Wade bare-chested, he took his shirt off, too.

Summer said, “Did you bring your little squirt gun?”

“Little?” Akaash said. “It’s eleven inches.”

“I think you need a new ruler,” Wade said.

Akaash said, “Let’s play a game. Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” Wade said.

“It’s not your turn,” Akaash said. “Ladies first.”

“Hmmmm,” Summer said. “Pass.”

Akaash said, “Hey, my parents have a house on the beach, I’d love to take you out there sometime.”

“Oh yeah?” Summer said.

“Yeah, it’s got, like, a hot tub and all that shit,” Akaash said.

“Quit lying,” Wade said.

“You don’t know,” Akaash said. “Fuck. There’s stuff you don’t know about me.”

Akaash dared Wade to investigate the inside of the wrecked school bus rotting in the overgrowth. Did you know, Wade said, a half-dozen kids from East died inside that bus? It was a highway accident from a few years back. “Ladies’ tennis team,” Wade said. “They were en route to regionals. Michael says they were really good that year.”

“Fuck,” Akaash said. “Kinda tragic.”

Luis remembered seeing the colorful wreaths on TV, adults wailing on the evening news. “Ghoooost busssss,” Wade and Akaash said, dying laughing as they stomped through the weeds to the fading yellow. The windows that survived the impact had been painted black.

“I’ll do any dare,” Wade said. “You name it, I’ll do it.” He kicked the bus’s folding door open now. He didn’t need a countdown. He went up the stairs, thinking nothing of it, and disappeared into the dark. Wade was gone long enough that Akaash turned to Luis with a serious look on his face—“There could be, like, bats in there,” he said, “fuckfuckfuck”—but then Wade came out, back into the firelight, carrying a stash of fireworks leftover from somebody’s Fourth of July. Roman candles. Cherry bombs.

“What?” Wade said. “You were worried about me? That’s sweet.” He slid the sun-bleached box of cherry bombs open. “Dude, you can’t even buy these in stores anymore.” He rubbed the fuse between his thumb and his forefinger. “Dare me to light one?”

Patrick lounged in the bed of Wade’s truck, his hand slipping absently into his shorts, the moonlight dark blue. He giggled when Luis came near. “He’s sucking out there. Are you hearing this?” He pulled a can of Straw-Ber-Rita out of the six-pack ring. Softly, like he was picking fruit off a tree. “We call him chicken fingers,” he said, “Akaash. It’s funny. He took Jenny to the movies. Dark, empty theatre, right? The nice one with the reclining chairs? She put his hand down her pants for him, and he still couldn’t do it. It’s like, what do you need to get the job done? Be creative, man. Butter works in a pinch. You’ve got that giant tub of popcorn right there.”

“That is not what happened,” Donica said. The fringe on her bikini made her look like an upturned mop. “Jenny did not do that.”

Patrick said, “I’m talking about Jenny F. You don’t know her.”

“Friedman, yeah, no,” she said. “I know who you’re talking about, asshole.” Whatever she was drinking must have been almost empty. She had to tip back her red cup to finish.

Patrick flashed a sick smile. “Sweetheart, I’m sorry,” he said, “but her name is all over those trees.” He gestured toward the woods with his can. “Would you like me to show you?”

 “You’re disgusting,” Donica said.

“Coming from you,” Patrick said, “that means a lot. Straw-Ber-Rita?” He plucked another can from the bunch and held it out to her. She stared at the offering, eyebrow cocked, letting him hold it there. When she finally reached for the can, Patrick pulled away. “You’ll have to climb up here and get it,” he said. “How bad do you want it?”

Patrick and Donica sneaking off into the woods, hand in hand—Luis followed close behind them, darting from shadow to shadow. All summer Luis had watched the boys, waited in the background. Tonight was supposed to be his moment. What did the boys see in Donica? What was so special? She was a milkshake, meant only to satisfy a craving. For Patrick, it seemed the cravings didn’t pass. Patrick was all appetite. Nothing would satisfy him.

Luis watched from the underbrush, two dark shapes rubbing against each other beneath the pines. Patrick lost his shirt, and there, again, was that golden glow. I made that, Luis thought. It’s mine. Luis was the one—in the daydream, he was!—who tugged Patrick’s shorts down to his ankles. From the locker room, Luis knew what it looked like, Patrick’s penis. Luis could conjure Patrick’s penis vividly in his mind, and the pale blue boxer shorts at Patrick’s feet, the ones with little sailboats on them. Patrick pushed Luis to the ground, and it was Luis’s knees that scratched against the pine needles, not Donica’s. Luis was Donica now. His head bobbing up and down. Patrick’s penis tasted like sodapop. He had a certain fizz to him. Mine mine mine.

It would only ever be a daydream. Luis watched Patrick hold Donica’s head in his hand like it was a cantaloupe at the supermarket and he was testing its weight. “You want it so bad,” Patrick told Donica. “Take it.”

Patrick hardly paused to dress himself before reaching for his pocketknife.

The boys, like moths, drawn to firelight. The night was ending, and they could feel it. Akaash, pissing on the flames. Wade was six or seven beers deep and chugging another as a dare. He was drowning, he was choking on it. “Got a surprise for you,” Wade said to Luis, wiping the foam from his mouth, sliding his hand into his pocket. The keys to his truck—he trusted Luis with the driver’s seat. Luis was sober enough to handle the heavy equipment. He was the least drunk, anyway, of the four boys.

“You never let me drive your truck,” Akaash said.

“Because you can only drink two beers before you’re blitzed,” Patrick said.

“I’m fucking phenomenal.”

“You can’t even piss straight,” Wade said. “Your shorts are, like, wet right now.”

 “If I don’t get any tonight, it’s the curse of the ghost bus. Man, fuck ladies’ tennis.”

“How do you explain all the other nights?” Wade said.

“Ha ha, fuck off, man,” Akaash said. “Seriously. Fuck yourself.”

Akaash bent over and started vomiting. It was a chunky, wheat-colored mixture.

In a few hours the boys would don their swimsuits again, cold and damp in the dark of their lockers, and sit high above the water surveying their kingdom. It was Luis’s kingdom as much as it was theirs. He dressed with them, showered with them. His hair, too, was becoming blonder by the day.

The maintenance man was packing up his cooler, his column of red cups. Without the girls there to stare at, he had no business left at the Boneyard tonight. The girls knew how to leave somewhere before it went flat. The boys drank every last drop, even when the fizz was gone.

“Do you know what happened to Donica?” Wade asked Patrick.

“How would I know?” Patrick said. “She’s your girl, man.”

Luis had made it to the end of the night, to the truck ride home. The other boys, his passengers, were someplace else. Akaash stared down at the floorboard. When he came to, he thrashed at the window. “If you throw up in my truck,” Wade said, “I will slit your fucking throat.” Between Wade and Luis, Patrick snored. He slept as if he’d just feasted, a rope of drool hanging onto his lower lip. His head lolled, grazing Luis’s shoulder.

 Luis nudged him away. One by one, Luis dropped the boys off at their brightly colored houses. Luis said, “Later, man,” and each one of them said, “Night,” somehow ignoring the blue light of morning. Luis watched the boys stumble up their driveways, trample over landscaping. The boys had been his. He watched their garage doors fall behind them quietly like curtains.