Joyland

New York |

Country Music

by Ryan D Matthews

edited by Emily Schultz

The garage smelled—mold and a dead mouse, I think. And Geoffrey. He was still going, over by the yellow light bulb, his corduroys sagging off his rump, magazine on the workbench, sweaty neck.

Why did he still have to wear corduroys? I tried to tell him real girls would never like him like that. He didn’t care. He had a whole garage full of magazines. And he’d been so full of himself since he started making sperm.

I’m going, I told him, and slipped the Nugget I was looking at under my shirt. The garage was cold and damp and away from the house, near a little gully that was being taken over by ropes of blackberry vine.

Every magazine had to be exactly in place, in the boxes piled beside the sawhorses, because Geoffrey was afraid of his dad. I was too. Ever since when he came home late and we had changed the cords so we could play video games in the garage. Then when his dad lay down to sleep on the couch after work, the TV didn’t work. He came huffing out to the cold garage and made us stand side-by-side while he yelled. Right in Geoffrey’s face with his booze breath. Barking words almost like that dog on TV. And I laughed a little.

His dad stopped yelling, marched over, stood straight in front of me. He didn’t say anything for a long time. I just swallowed. I swallowed at each thing I could look at that wasn’t him. Kerosene heater. Stack of old tires. Oil stain on the concrete. Rusted engine lift. Box of rags.

He moved like he would head-butt me and I flinched. That made him laugh. And then he twisted my arm and I ran out the door to the workshop at the side of the garage. Geoffrey followed me and we hid in the damp cement bathroom while his dad pushed at the locked door. It bulged and bent and we held against it like little linemen, but the door was just thin, flimsy wood over foamboard. Then it broke off. I tried to go out the window, but that made his dad madder. Cocksucker, he yelled. He got inside and grabbed Geoffrey in the headlock.

I didn’t help. I didn’t try. I just ran. All the way home along the road and through the dark, muddy woods, tripping on roots and ripping ferns to keep my balance, getting strung in the face with wet alder limbs and, I guess, a nettle. I heard barking on the ridge, the dogs that sometimes chase after me and Geoffrey. I didn’t worry about them. Dogs are even sometimes partly afraid when they’re chasing you. But I’d never seen anyone as unafraid as Geoffrey’s dad.

When I got home that night the house was dark. I slammed the door behind me and caught my breath. I could see Mom looking up from her spot on the couch, her face all blue in the TV light, at my torn clothes and wild scratches on my face. I told her we were “playing outside.” She nodded but didn’t hear and I went upstairs. I still felt like I needed to hide. I didn’t go back to Geoffrey’s for four days. By then it felt like I was dragging bowling balls in my boxers.

*

See you, homo, I said again. Geoffrey didn’t even look up from the magazine. I wondered if he just stayed there all afternoon, before his stepmom got home in her junky post-office truck. The clanking of low gear gave him fair warning to pull up his corduroys.

He was starting to groan. I needed a little more privacy. And now, I was going have my own magazine.

Girls. We talked about them a lot, at night on his musty carpet when I slept over. We agreed to share the girl if one of us ever got one. I wouldn’t, of course, but in case he did. I’d share his girl. A Geoffrey girl…Same thick glasses and his same curly hair but longer. Corduroys and the same rump. I wouldn’t tell anyone.

Now I wanted to burn slugs. Might be too warm, but there’d be a few hiding under rocks in the garden. I used to be able to make beer traps and watch them drown, but Mom won’t buy beer for herself anymore.

I had to go. I had to hide my magazine. Something about the garage and the smell and how different you felt after you were done made you hate everything. And you hated Geoffrey most of all, for being Geoffrey and letting people look. I almost hoped his dad noticed the magazine was gone. Sickos to have a whole garage full, when his stepmom was okay-looking. She was actually pretty, with long straight hair like from the '70s.

Out the door. I already felt better. The sun was shining, my bike was against the garage, old Blue was lying in the grass not batting an eye, not worried about me, snapping her jaws at bees and giving sorry yips when she caught one. Even the half-finished house didn’t look bad.

I whipped the bike around, rode down the dusty gray pipeline road that split the dark evergreens and cut through all the way to Canada. Somebody said that, at least.

Up the hill. Used to call it Pussy’s Hill, but pussy is too good a word. I needed to figure out where to stash the magazine until Mom left and I could really look at it. I wanted to learn about the girls, but I couldn’t in front of Geoffrey.

I threw the bike in the dark basement that smelled like wet ashes and wet leather and lava soap. Mom’s car was in the carport, but I hoped she was gone—maybe shopping or pretending to shop in town. Just liked to look at things, she said. Maybe she was with Greg.

I wanted to sneak up to my room and put the magazine away. To look at it more. Open the pages, see the new pictures, ones I hadn’t seen before, before I got used to them and needed different ones. His dad probably wouldn’t miss one magazine.

I was halfway up the stairs, sneaking in my socks when I heard the pipes hammer before the toilet flushed. Darren? I heard Mom say, in her tense looking-for-me voice.

Out the door and across the cracked cement walkway and down to the pond.

Darren, what are you doing?

She was standing on the deck, holding a load of laundry and shading her eyes against the bright overcast sky that usually gave her a headache.

Weeding. Most of the time she didn’t come outside when the clouds were like this.

There’s nothing to weed there. It’s all weeds.

Makes it easier to find them.

Want some gloves to help me in the garden?

I’m going in.

Looks like you’re going out.

Yeah?

Geoffrey called. He’s coming over.

We’re tired of each other.

…Yeah?

She came down the wobbly front stairs and stood by the sheet metal that covered the well. She looked mannish in her jeans, worn out at the seat and knees, and her old flannel shirt that smelled like wet hay. Her hair was tangled, too.

Call him. You might still catch him.

I ran to the basement, picked up the sawdust-covered receiver, and turned the rotary.

It’s Darren.

Come over.

Why?

You have to. I hated his whiny kid voice. He acted like I was his mom.

You need a hand? Perv.

I know you took the magazine.

Yeah right.

You have to come.

I already did.

What?

Nothing. Perv.

Looking out the window of the dark basement I saw Mom walking toward the garden, carrying a hoe, the cigarette in her mouth pointing up at an angle as she strained to lift a bucket of fertilizer. Did she think I was gone? She tried not to smoke when I was there unless something was the wrong.

She’d never get through the whole garden. It needed to be tilled, but the tiller didn’t work.

Please come.

Why?

I…

Jesus.

I want you to.

Screw you, pussy.

Don’t say that.

Oh, yeah.

Meet me by the junkyard.

I hung up. Another one scared of being alone.

The woodshed was just as good. I could avoid Mom and hide the magazine there. There weren’t many of the peeling red-slat boards left and you could see right through them. I liked the feeling of being in there. Nice in the rain to watch the drops fall on the pond and listen to the tin roof. No one would find you. It was safe.

The best part about the woodshed though: slugs. All along the back of the foundation, right where the underground water flows. So many slugs. Colonies and camps of them.

I ran to turn on the juice in the carport. Didn’t have to keep the electric fences on anymore without the horses, but it still worked. I flipped the switch and found a perfect stick. Usually I save my sticks, but I smashed the last one and don’t remember why.

The fish were out from under the speckled rocks in the pond. Could just see their begging mouths below the surface that was covered in little bamboo leaves before they saw my reflection and scattered.

What would happen if you shot a fish? They don’t really bleed when you catch them with a hook.

I ran up the hill to get the BB gun from the basement, past the covered-over well. I liked to lie flat on my stomach and hang my head over to look down it. It must be 70 feet down.

I liked and didn’t like looking down the well. The noise of nothing made my stomach shrink and the blackness at the bottom was too black. And it was hard not to think about what your body would do bouncing off the walls and what the sound would be as you fell and what the little hole of light up above would look like from down there in the well water. What would it smell like down there? It was covered over with the welded sheet metal that Dad made and I think he used to tell me not to jump on it. It makes such a good sound, though, echoing up and down the walls like the very end of a thunderstorm.

I got the gun from the blackness of the basement and ran back, squeezing between the worktables, band saw and table saw, past the old tentacles of the coal furnace, the freezer, and woodstove. Back out into the hot light, and down the little hill. I slowed down so I didn’t scare the fish. Greedy little things.

I cocked the gun. Say your prayers, boys. Pulled the trigger.

Darren.

I dropped the gun into the weeds like I never even touched it.

Where did you get that?

No good answer. Especially not that I traded Dad’s antique hunting knife to Leif Nordlander for it.

It’s just a BB gun.

I stared at her until she closed her mouth. She tripped over the hoe and turned back to the garden. I slipped the gun between the slats at the back of the woodshed and hid it behind the axes next to the magazine.

I wasn’t done with the gun, but Mom would be after me to help weed if I stayed. Better to escape.

I ran past the well, slipped into the basement, and up the stairs to the kitchen. I got mud on the carpet. Mom would be pissed. At least she wouldn’t be sad.

I slipped out the broken sliding glass door so she wouldn’t see me, past the apple trees with all the apples down. I skidded on one and it smelled like spilled vinegar. I ran down past where the old dogs were all buried. Mom wouldn’t get another one because things were “uncertain.” Even though they were just the same.

I didn’t want to see Geoffrey again. That kind of sick feeling. The grossness of it as soon as you were done. But I didn’t want to give the magazine back.

Riding down the road again, trees whizzing by. The neighbors’ houses behind the trees. The only one you could see was the guy who raised cocks for fighting. Each little chicken with its own brown cedar-shake hut. Each chicken tied to its hut by a little string on its leg. Each hut spaced so the rooster couldn’t attack its neighbor.

I was attacked by a rooster when I was a baby. Bloodied me all up with its hind spur and Dad carried me into the kitchen and put me in the sink. I remember the blood filling up the sink and thinking I was dying.

The neighbor who raised fighting cocks always waved, but never said anything. He always wore his hunting cap and flannel shirt and blue wool pants and smoked a pipe that smelled like cherries even on the hottest summer days. He had the lightest blue eyes I’d ever seen and weird gray skin. Kind of haunted. Now there were just the little huts in the field and no birds. Cops got him, and then he got sick and now doesn’t go outside. Apple-wood smoke climbing out of his chimney each morning was the only way we knew he was there.

I wondered if he had kids or anything.

Funny, Geoffrey actually didn’t complain about his dad. Sometimes he did in my head though. We’re fighting and he says how lucky I am that Mom doesn’t care about anything and I can do what I want and then I just yell in his face, At least you have one. At least you have a dad. Right in his face and spitting, You fucker. You fucker! I say, and punch him in the stomach. Hard. And he bends over sucking wind. And I hit him in his fucking mouth and his fucking glasses so they break in his face and in his eyes and he’s covering himself and I just keep hitting.

I was crying a little and wiped my eyes. I pedaled harder.

I rode down the hill and up the other hill. The wind was whistling in my ears and I didn’t hear the truck until it was right there. It was going too fast and so was I. I tried to swerve but didn’t. The world just kind of stopped because everything was too fast.

It was like a crazy movie in slow motion on the VCR, each frame fuzzed with a line through it. Geoffrey’s dad’s Ford like a giant, coming right at me like it would eat up my bike, me jumping off like Bruce Willis, and the bike, a quick screech of tires and then hitting off the side of the truck and falling right down on the rocky pavement. Me laying face down in the muddy grass on the side of the road, looking at a ripped blue tarp shredded in the ditch. The truck didn’t even slow down. It was gone over the hill by the time I got up.

When I picked myself up and had wiped away the little tears, I didn’t know what to do. It was too quiet. No sound of bugs or wind. There were no smells that I could smell. I kept looking around and around. There was nothing to see. My bike was fine; my hands were a little scratched. I didn’t know if it really happened.

But it did. It was really Geoffrey’s dad. And Geoffrey had been sitting beside him.

Geoffrey’s face was a goner face.

I thought about Geoffrey’s face when his dad broke through. There was foam from the door floating down on us and his dad got his arms around Geoffrey’s neck and his little face. His glasses all bent and ripping off his ear, pushing into his eye. And I could have put the TV cords back in two minutes. I knew just how to fix them.

When me and Geoffrey were younger we would walk a lot of miles up the pipeline to an open field where no one ever went. There were power lines going over the field and they made two kinds of humming sounds at once that sounded like when a superhero uses their power. We would stand in the very middle of the field and yell bad words. Words we didn’t even know and words that probably weren’t really bad. But it felt good. You had to walk really far away for it to feel so good.

I couldn’t escape to Geoffrey’s. There was nowhere to go. But now I felt more like burning slugs than ever. I picked up my bike and rode back. Hopefully Mom would be gone or stay in the garden. I rode up the steep road.

The house looked empty and sad. The windows were dark. The car was gone. Mom had left the basement door open and all the garden stuff dumped right there where she gave up. She’d probably ask me to clean it up.

I wanted to go look at my magazine. Also not. Because of what was happening to Geoffrey. It was so strange that he could have a dad like that. He was so small and wasn’t really good at anything. But maybe his dad wasn’t really mad.

I didn’t care. It was getting warm out by now, I wasn’t sure there’d be many slugs by the woodshed even. Maybe closer to the woods or the garden. One quick look by the pond.

A frickin’ orgy. Slugs 69ing, 66ing, 99ing. Slugs worse than the magazines. Baby slugs and huge ones. There were even some bananas. There used to be more banana slugs, but I probably fried to too many of them. The mud under that old rock was mostly slime. The slime was sort of creamy. Even frickin’ slugs could make sperm.

There was a good one, nice little eyeholes on the side of his face, shiny brown body. He was racing over to the rock to share his buddy’s girl. Easier for slugs since they’re all girls. And boys. I liked this one. His slime was clear and not milky. That meant they were healthier.

I stepped over the wet green underground path of the stream and over to “Old Smokey.” It was always best to test it yourself. Hard to know if it was really on. Usually you just touched your stick to the fence for a little jolt.

Me and Geoffrey had done tons of tests. The best test though: a “fried friend.” Good to touch the thin little silver wire when he wasn’t looking and then grab his arm. Watch him yelp.

We’d also done the peeing on it test, and the peeing and grabbing the other guy test. Sometimes we crossed streams. Geoffrey wanted to touch wieners once, but I said no frickin’ way, homo. He tried to pretend it was like blood brothers, but there was no such thing. Weiner brothers? No.

Funny though because we are kind of like brothers. His real brother, half brother, is older and doesn’t live with him. He’s in the navy, I think. Geoffrey says he doesn’t like him, but the one time I met him he was on leave, sitting in the den—his mom yelling at his dad in the kitchen—and he was different in front of his brother, trying to be very serious and talk about the things his brother talked about. He looked at him the whole time. He told me about how his brother saved him from drowning once, when he was three and they lived in California and he leaned over a pool to get a beach ball and fell in. I think his brother might have been the one who showed him about the magazines. I think maybe when he was too young.

Why would his dad even care about one magazine? He should like that Geoffrey liked them. Maybe he wasn’t mad. And Geoffrey’s little face in the truck wasn’t scared, just excited. It was good. If his dad knew about the magazines, maybe he would stop calling Geoffrey a gaylord.

I turned the slug over to get his other side. The yellow slime was building up by the slug’s smooth stomach as it sizzled on the wire. The smell was like bitter meat—rancid but still cooked. I stabbed him right in the middle. A slug kabob. White guts bulged out his left side.

I set him on the big mossy rock by the side of the pond and grabbed the gun. I put it right against his body, already pulling tight into a ball at the touch.

I heard the phone ring in the basement. I didn’t want to pick it up because it might be Mom. But what if Greg left her somewhere again?

The phone kept ringing. I pulled the trigger and then ran to get it.

Darren. You at the junkyard?

I’m on the phone, idiot.

You have to come.

I hung up the phone.

I rode down the road, not the woods. Trees whizzing by, the rooster huts, ponds with no tadpoles. Stumps and ponds and streams. I knew them, every single one.

I didn’t want to see Geoffrey. We were tired of each other. And I was tired of everyone else. If I knew where my Dad was, I’d just go there.

I could see the junkyard. It wasn’t a junkyard, just a place where people dumped junk. Lots of old cars. An old rusted-out Corvair we filled every inch of with gray rocks. Broken refrigerators, tires, bags of diapers, bags of beer bottles, wine bottles, liquor bottles, broken trailers stacked with old farm equipment, containers of antifreeze, car batteries, puddles of sour-colored water. All weeds and junk. And sometimes people.

Geoffrey was sitting on the Corvair. Looked like he was pretending to be cool. He’d make me go get the magazine for sure. He could try.

What’s up, homo? I yelled.

I set the bike in the gravel. He wasn’t wearing his glasses and his eyes had that mole-ish look. Underneath his eyes was all lighter colored that you didn’t notice when he wore his glasses. But his face was all messed up. His lip was fat and his ear was caked in blood. He was holding his arm like cradling a baby. He didn’t really look at me. He squinted, trying to see without the glasses, but it made him wince. And whimper a bit. Like a real old dog that can’t get up.

What’s up?

Geoffrey kind of laughed. And winced.

He almost broke my arm. His voice wasn’t whiny now, just small.

I forgot the magazine.

He made me pick out a special hose from the hardware store.

I can bring it.

He said Deborah is spoiling me.

Yeah? He almost ran over me.

He doesn’t even know about the magazine.

What?

I thought that was it, why he was mad. But it wasn’t.

Why was he?

I don’t know. I don’t know.

He looked off up the pipeline, to the very top where the gray gravel disappeared at the sky. I don’t know.

I thought of all the ways we could get him back. The gun. Not the BB gun, but the one in Mom’s closet she didn’t know I knew about. Throw him down the well. Get him to chase us through the woods into a booby trap, a pit, a tiger trap. Starve him out. Train a dog to attack him, rip his face off. Get him to drive us somewhere, to Sultan, and then swerve the truck when we got over the river and jump out at just the right time. Run over him with his own truck. Saw accident, scare him when he was working in the garage, right onto the table saw and then let him bleed. Push him down his basement stairs and then beat him. Take a baseball bat to him in his sleep. Slit his throat with a bowie knife. Poison him slowly with cyanide from apple seeds. Quickly with belladonna, or whatever those black berries the jays fight over are. Put it in his liquor. Strangle him and make it look like he was a pervert. Give him too many sleeping pills. Make everyone think he was a pervert with us so that he would kill himself just by himself.

Both of us were quiet. Geoffrey, squinting and wincing and not looking at me, just down at the hand that was trying to make a fist. I looked up the pipeline. It probably didn’t go all the way to Canada.

Lots of sound in the quiet now. The sound of bugs and wind through the grass and bags of trash. The big woof of a V8 starting. Birds, maybe a frog.

The truck—his dad’s truck—flying down the pipeline road. Just the dust kicked up in a rooster tail was all you could see. The outline of the blue and white Ford Custom Cab.

You gotta promise we won’t be like that. Geoffrey winced every time he talked.

The truck was closer now and I could see Geoffrey’s dad with his arm stretched over the back of the bench seat. He had on that cool yellow Joe Camel T-shirt with the right sleeve rolled up over a pack of cigarettes. Geoffrey made a hurt squeak and jumped behind the Corvair to hide, but I just sat there.

His dad slowed at the stop sign, but didn’t stop. You could hear him, though, whistling a tune. Country music.

He didn’t see us. We were nothing to him. His face, so cool and calm. What Geoffrey would look like someday.

No. He’d always look just like Geoffrey.

Geoffrey climbed back on top of the car and looked at me. Squinted. Winced. Cried out when he moved his hand. His corduroys and curly hair and the white beneath his eyes. The skin kind of almost blue. He’d always be Geoffrey.

I looked at the back of the truck as it sped along up the road, past his ex father-in-law’s house, further, past the little huts left over from the fighting cocks. All the trash and junk they dumped. Everything left over that people didn’t want.

The truck disappeared around the bend of trees. Geoffrey sat by me, his mole eyes working when my shadow shaded him. When we couldn’t hear the truck, he flipped off the direction it disappeared.

He leaned his head on my shoulder. He looked up at my face. I rested my chin on his fluffy curly hair and started to whistle a tune I didn’t really know.


Illustration by Carolyn Tripp