Mom looked beautiful as usual, cloaked in simple grace, a red dress with patches of gold sequin—her favorite. It was a Friday night in the winter of ’84. Mom was getting ready to go downtown, to dance and drink, a girls’ night out with her old friend, Barbara Harris. Barbara came by with her son, Kenny…Kenny Harris, my ordained watcher for the evening, as my brother, Andrew, was sleeping at a friend’s.
Mom was in her early thirties, her skin still soft and smooth. Barbara was the same age, but she looked more like an old mop who’d just been rung out, spat from the womb of a rusted bucket. That never bothered my mother. She didn’t judge. Barbara had a different upbringing than my mother’s, her father a drunk, her mother sad from dusk till dawn; they moved frequently. She had Kenny when she was fourteen, banged some drunk at a bar one night, never saw the guy again.
Kenny was bigger than the average sixteen-year-old, six foot, stocky shoulders. His hair was on the longer side, greasy and unkempt. We exchanged quiet hellos, brief eye contact. I was a shy kid, at first timid around strangers. He was as well. Kenny wore a stained gray T-shirt with the head of a lion stenciled on the front in white. His light blue jeans had holes in the knees, and his once all-white sneakers were as gray as a corpse.
Mom grabbed her coat and leaned in for a hug and kiss.
“Bye, sweetheart. Be good for Kenny. I’ll see you when you wake up tomorrow. Love you.”
“Okay, Mom, I love you, too. Have fun.”
Kenny’s mom leaned into his ear, said something quietly, as if it were the most important thing she’d ever said to him. He nodded in obedience. My mother was smiling as they left. Barbara was not.
“I’m gonna go watch TV,” I said.
Kenny said nothing.
After a minute or so Kenny walked in. The Dukes of Hazzard was on. I kept my eyes glued to the TV as he sat down on the opposite end of the couch and took command of the remote. He flipped through the channels, stopped on some made-for-TV movie where pretty sorority girls were getting murdered in their pajamas. He took his shoes off, put his feet up, his dirty socks draped over the coffee table, wrinkling the white crocheted doily with every bodily adjustment. A few times he looked over, not really wanting me to notice. I pretended not to notice. What I wanted to do was go to my room, but I was afraid it would initiate a conversation.
“Where are you going? Can I come?” I imagined he would ask.
Kenny got up, went to the kitchen. I breathed easier. I could hear the sticky pop of the refrigerator opening, then closing, the unstable condiments on the door shelves rattling with each slam. He did this a few times. Every time I’d hear the rupture of a tin can, a quick snap and a crack, crisp with the release of carbon. With every open can and slobbery gulp came a splatter on the blue tile. He’d return to the living room, fall to the couch, each time more aggressively than the last, each time smelling more like barley and hops. When the movie ended, he went to the fridge again. It opened, it closed. The top of a can was cracked but no splash, and this time he didn’t come back. Some clock ticked by, thirty minutes or so. I went to the fridge, grabbed a Coke, sat back down, and melted into the cushions with one leg over the arm of our old, shaggy puke-green couch. I felt alone and free, like a vacation.
When I heard Kenny’s voice, it startled me. It was loud but calm, coming from upstairs. My heart raced. The walls of my throat closed in, like a clogged toilet. I muted the TV, remained quiet.
“Jake! Come up here,” he yelled.
I thought about ignoring him.
“What?” I yelled back.
“Come up here.”
“Just come here for a minute. Come check this out."
He said it like we were old friends, and for a moment, I believed we were. I stood up from the couch, stared at the doorway. There were details in the framing that I’d never recognized before—dried paint runs everywhere.
He called again, more impatiently this time.
I knocked over a chair on my way through the kitchen. Brandy, our adorable tricolored mutt—black, white, and brown—looked up from her food bowl.
“I’ll be right back, girl,” I said.
I passed through the kitchen and into the hallway leading toward the stairs. I was wearing warm socks. I slid my way down the hall on the hardwood floor out of joyful habit. I turned the corner and took the first step.
“Coming,” I said, quickly, nervously.
I didn’t want to hear his loud voice again so I sped up and made the top of the stairs.
“I’m in here,” he said.
It came from my brother’s room, on my right, across from my mother’s room.
“What’s going on?” I asked, just before turning the corner.
Shock built to a crescendo and my eyes began to swell. My entire body shook. My knees buckled. I didn’t know what to make of such a scene…obscene. I only knew that I was afraid. Kenny was stretched out across my brother’s thin, torn blue carpet, wearing only his gray T-shirt, lying on his back with one arm behind his neck, awkwardly tilting his head up while his toes pointed up to the pale, cracked, water-stained ceiling. It wasn’t that pretty at all. A shadeless lamp rested on the floor beside him—so bright. He stared at me with the ominous smile of a sinister clown who ate children, as I stood frozen in trepidation, unable to understand why Kenny had his dick in his hand. I turned to leave.
“Stop! Come here, Jake,” he said, his tone low and shaky, disgusting with heavy breath.
I should have run, but I was too afraid. While Kenny was in the throes of an unnerving peace…and an unnerving pace, I, for the first time in my life, felt like I was going to die. Beads of sweat bubbled on my forehead and fell down along the sides of my face to my jawline, where they hung. Such heavy drops pulled me to my knees. It was only fitting that I began to pray. I prayed for chocolate cupcakes, the escape of them. I wanted to close my eyes and wake up at Elaine the sitter’s musty old house from the first grade, tracing the coarse, candied line of white swirl with my finger, avoiding all that lived and breathed in front of me.
“Get up, Jake. Come here,” he said. “I just want you to touch it.”
I pressed my knees to my body, wrapped my arms around them, and sunk my chin to my chest. It took everything I had to push out a response, the words falling in a botched stutter from my call shot to my lips…right into the meat grinder.
“I d-don’t w-want to,” I said.
I could no longer hold back the tears. The floodgates blew open. Snot bubbles spewed from my nostrils.
If I could channel my inner Bob Ross, I would stain the canvas with the portrait of a little boy caught at the mountain’s edge by an angry, starved lion not quite satisfied with his last meal. The boy senses his own death in both directions and can only wait for it. The lion stalks, the strain on his face ripping through the skin with each roar. The boy hopes for what any boy would hope for in such a situation, for his mommy to save him, or for the end to finally come, killing the fear once and for all—fear is the worst part of death. But the lion calculates, takes his time. He can’t wait to eat, yet he does. He waits, because it excites him. The realization of imminent death builds up inside of the little boy with every intentionally slow step that the lion takes. The little boy knows what’s about to happen, but it still hasn’t, and he’s left waiting, until the lion decides to tear him apart.
I felt Kenny move closer toward me.
“Look at me,” he said.
“No!” I begged.
He put his dirty hand on top of my head, grabbed a palm full of hair; his grip was a vise. He slowly peeled my head up. I grabbed his wrist with both hands, let out a high-pitched screech, like a hyena caught in a bear trap.
“Open your fucking mouth!” he screamed.
I released his wrists and pissed my pants.
“Open your mouth, Jake!” He leaned in closer. “Or I’ll fucking kill you!"
I felt ashamed. I didn’t want him to say my name. He grabbed under my chin, squeezed my cheeks. My mouth popped open. I couldn’t pull away. He put his face close to mine, stuck his tongue in my mouth. I gagged. Kenny stood up, angry, his hand still holding tightly to my hair, pulling me toward him. I closed my eyes, asked God to let me live, then pushed him as hard as I could. He fell back as a body shuffled behind me. There was a voice, a frightened voice.
“Oh my God!” said the voice.
Kenny shrunk. The look on his face changed from the lion scouting its prey to the embarrassed teenager who got caught masturbating by his parents.
Next time lock the door before you decide you want to forcibly mouth-fuck a young boy, asshole!
Paint that, Bob Ross.
Kenny backed into the corner near the head of my brother’s bed, looking like a frightened child. He looked like me.
I turned around, caught only a glimpse of my mother’s back as she ran.
I chased after my mother, wanted to calm her down, tell her everything was okay, tell her I was okay. She was sitting on the side of her bed, the phone in her hand and her head down. She sobbed through the sound of the dial tone, a thick, deep, chest-punishing cry. I said many things to her.
“Mom, it’s okay. What’s wrong? Are you mad? Nothing happened. It’s okay, Mom. I’m okay.”
She grabbed me, held me. It’s all I wanted.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she said, shaking. “I’m so, so sorry.”
But it was too late. The ugliness of the night had sewn itself into my skin, like a patch on a torn doll. All that love and loyalty that I’d felt in the past, that rendered me impenetrable, that guarded the gates of my soul for all of my life, it no longer seemed real. I remember how much it hurt, watching my mother turn and run. But I sympathized. She must have been scared. She didn’t know of the fear that I felt. I wanted to be angry at her, but only because she wasn’t there in the first place.
She would have pounced on him, right? She would have grabbed a baseball bat and cracked his skull. She would have grabbed a kitchen knife and severed him at the balls…right? Then you would have picked me up and held me right away, Mom. I know that you would have. You only ran because you didn’t understand. It’s okay, Mom.
Kenny took off when I went to my mother’s room. I never saw him again. Mom called Barbara and told her what happened—what she knew of it anyway—and forbade Kenny from ever coming anywhere near me again. The two of them left town as fast as they could. I wondered who he’d babysit next.
The next day I woke up in my mother’s bed, on the left. Mom was gone. The right side of the comforter was folded down to a ruffled triangle, leaving the trail of her exit. She must have left quietly, not yet ready to talk about it…not that I wanted to. I imagine she stared at me while I slept, peering at my limp body, whispering—the guilt she must have felt.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart…Mommy’s sorry. I love you so, so much…I’ll never let anything like that happen to you again…I promise.”
That’s probably what she said.
The air conditioner was turned off but the room was still cool. The scent of bacon, eggs, and toast got me out of bed. I opened the door, looked down at the floor in my brother’s room, remembered Kenny trying to stick his tongue down my throat, then ran to my mother’s bathroom and puked in the toilet. I cleaned up and went downstairs, hesitated halfway, afraid to face her. I was ashamed and wondered if she felt the same. Mom was hunched over with the phone to her ear and her back to me, sitting at the other end of the kitchen table. We never ate at that table. She whispered, maybe to my father or grandma, maybe Barbara. I wondered if Mom would still be friends with her. A soft sadness in her tone offset the loud sizzle and pop from the cast-iron skillet. The sound of cooked bacon was loud and sharp, each crack high-pitched on the backdrop of an eerie silence that filled the gaps of each sentence. The elephant in the room was standing like a dunce in the pantry doorway, staring, waiting.
I better say something so he disappears.
“Smells good,” I said.
Mom turned around.
“I’ve got to go. He’s up,” she said.
She hung up the phone, wiped her eyes, and walked over with a poorly built smile, looking past me at the stove. I was afraid of what she would say.
“Are you hungry, sweetheart?” she asked.
I felt both disappointment and relief.
My brother came home, seemed rather chummy, more so than normal. Usually it was a whack on the meaty part of my shoulder, or a charley horse.
Mom must have told him.
Andrew was a good brother to me, but not a day went by where I wasn’t getting on his nerves in some way. But not today.
“Wanna watch TV?” he asked.
We watched Saturday morning cartoons. The elephant was back, standing in the doorway, arms folded, a nosy look on his face.
“Seriously? You’re just gonna keep ignoring me?” said the elephant.
“Talk to her,” I said, pointing out toward the kitchen.
Andrew couldn’t hear us.
That evening my father came by to pick us up for dinner. He was a shadow of his typically energetic self. He hugged my mother longer than usual. They got along well considering his history of infidelity. Dad dropped to a knee in front of me, kissed my forehead, and wrapped me in the most incredible hug—I wish I could have enjoyed it. My father was affectionate toward my brother and me, but some embraces say hello, some say more. On our way out I turned back to say good-bye to my mother. She knelt down. The elephant stood behind her, shaking his head. He looked how I felt.
"Everything’s gonna be okay, Jake," said Mom.
She hugged me. I said nothing and we left.
Andrew moved past me and climbed into the back of Dad’s orange convertible MG.
“You can take the front, Jakey,” he said.
“Ummm…okay…thanks,” I said.
We drove downtown to the River City Diner, one of those rail-car style, prefabricated ones. “The Gambler” played on Dad’s radio—Dad loved Kenny Rogers. We parked right in front of the diner. A distorted reflection arrived at the same time, shone in the outer shell of stainless steel that formed the skin of the elongated canteen. The diner door jingle-jangled, announcing our arrival, prompting the waitress at the service counter to wave.
“Anywhere you’d like,” she said while brewing a pot of coffee. “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band was playing from one of the mini jukeboxes that sat at every table. It smelled like french fries, coffee, and pie. There was a real sense that you were in the middle of nowhere in a small town just off the side of a dirt road. A family was eating dinner at the end of the car—a mother, father, two kids (one little boy and his older brother). The mom and oldest son were quietly eating while the dad had one hand on the younger boy’s back as he jumped up and down in the booth. At the counter was an older gentleman with a tan John Deere jacket, jeans, and tan work boots caked with mud on the bottom outer rim. His trucker cap rested on the countertop along with two singles and some change. A consistent steam rose thick from his cup as he hunched over to read the paper.
We chose a booth in the middle. Andrew sat next to me. Our waitress’s name was Pam. Her hair was up. She smiled. We ordered cheeseburgers and fries and thanked her for the Coca-Colas she brought. In the booth behind my father, the elephant sat and stared at me with an impatient look, dribbling his fingers on the table…flah-da-dum, flah-da-dum.
“Not you, too,” he said to my dad.
“Give him a minute,” I said to the elephant.
Dad looked at my brother, then me.
“Jake, I wanted to ask you about what happened last night…with Kenny,” he said.
My brother looked down at the table, picking at his thumbnail, frustrated. He had something to say, but didn’t. One thing I knew for sure was that Andrew was my brother in the true sense of the word. He loved me, despite the fact that I was often a pain in his ass. But he stood up for me. He chased off this kid once, Dennis Trench, a bully from the middle school. Dennis walked down to the elementary school almost every day with a couple of his friends after the final bell. He’d find me on the monkey bars or chatting with friends, start giving me shit, knock my books out of my hand, establishing his dominance for no apparent reason. I was too afraid to do anything about it at the time. When my brother got wind of my troubles (one of my friends must have told him), he decided to pay me a visit one day after school, showed up at two o’clock on the dot.
“Hey, Jake,” he said.
Then Dennis arrived, and it was like I wasn’t even there. My brother’s eyes were ice blue. He had this terrible stare. Andrew was physically fit with a strong head, the kind someone would break their hand on. But he was smart, too. He could read people. As my brother approached, Dennis and his two understudies backed up. I was with two of my classmates who were also routinely picked on.
“What the fuck are you guys doing down here…at the elementary school?”
They fumbled over each other’s stuttering returns.
“My brother goes to scho—”
“Which one of you motherfuckers is Dennis?” Andrew demanded.
It wasn’t but the opening bell and Dennis looked like he was going to cry.
“I-I’m Dennis,” he said.
Andrew walked closer to him, his nose practically touching Dennis’s, then pointed at me.
“If you ever fuck with my little brother again…if you ever set foot on this yard again…if I see you within fifty feet of either him or this place…I’ll knock you into the middle of next week!”
That was the last day I found myself within a stone’s throw of Dennis. Andrew was only thirteen when the lion came, but I know he would have never let Kenny hurt me had he been home that night. He’d have fought for me.
“Do you want to talk about it?” my dad asked.
“Not really,” I said, looking down at the table.
The elephant had an interested look.
“Can you tell me what happened?” said Dad.
I squirmed, no eye contact. I looked outside, down at the table. I looked anywhere but my father’s eyes.
“Nothing. It’s fine.”
“It must have been pretty scary.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Did he tou—”
I interrupted him, didn’t want to hear the words come out of his mouth. I gave my dad some watered-down CliffsNotes, downplayed it, tried to close the conversation as fast as I could. It was too hard to talk about, how Kenny made me feel, to describe the fear that I felt. That was the last time anyone in my family asked me about the lion. They never pressed. Maybe it was my fault. I never gave them anything. I never told them that I thought Kenny was going to kill me that night. If he had just five more minutes alone with me, he’d have put his hands around my throat and squeezed, then raped my dead body. I never told them that I couldn’t sleep the way I used to, that I was more afraid of the dark than I was before, for fear that I wouldn’t see Kenny approaching. I used to feel safe. I used to feel that nothing, that nobody could ever hurt me, that my family could protect me from anything. I didn’t feel any of those things anymore. As we left the diner, Dad put his hand on my shoulder.
"Everything’s gonna be okay, Jakey boy," he said.
"Yeah…that’s what Mom said."
Loneliness was what I felt, until I met Keo and Viet.