In the back yard, Francis pulled out six fresh decks of playing cards with the cellophane wrapping still on them, and he tossed one down on each card table. A brother-in-law followed, throwing a bottle opener down on each table, and a brother-in-law followed him, laying down a scoring pad and golf pencil on each table.
Things were set. Things were really taking off. Men sat down. Cards were dealt. Cards slid across smooth surfaces to deft hands that picked them up and ordered them in fan shapes. Bottles of cheap lager beers were cracked open. Cheap cigars were lit and puffed on to get them started. Men shouted when they won, men shouted when they lost. Boys and girls gathered around to watch. Long stems of trembling ash refused to fall, then finally fell. The smell of roasting chicken wafted over from across the yard. Sunshine fell down happily on many balding heads. The perfect day. The beautiful unpredictability of life.
The littlest boy looked up at the oldest man in the world, Ancient Uncle Joe, who was nine feet tall, and the oldest person he had ever seen. Ancient Uncle Joe – they all called him Uncle Joe – didn’t wink, or tickle, or smile. The littlest boy kept looking up at him from the ground. The man had ears the size of baked potatoes that were the color of ashes. The littlest boy had no choice but to climb up the old man’s mountain legs. He stood on Ancient Uncle Joe’s lap and tugged on both of his earlobes. The men erupted in laughter. Even Ancient Uncle Joe had to smile.
“You know,” he said, “My mother used to pull my ears to punish me. That’s why they’re so long. So don’t ever pulls on a kid’s ears!” and he quickly yanked on the littlest boy’s earlobes, hard, so it hurt, and he leapt off the old man’s lap, and ducked under the table where he sat cross-legged, smelling the beer and cigar stink and freshly-mown grass and chicken. He looked at the pant-legs and shoes and socks that didn’t move, then suddenly jerked when there was shouting above.
Women came spilling out of the hot and crowded kitchen into the front yard where rows and circles of folding chairs had been set up under and around the two box elder trees that framed the house. They talked of babies, how children grow up too fast, and recipes. They talked about who had died recently, and who had died long ago. They were happy because so many familiar faces were gathered together in one place. Francis’s oldest sister said, “What a rare occasion, when our daily depressions and worries melt away and are forgotten.” “Amen to that,” said the women, who appreciated sentiment and the sister’s poetical expressions.
The littlest boy came running with a head full of steam. A red-haired cousin caught him, picked him up, and carried him around like he was her baby. “Boo, boo, boo,” she said, bouncing him up and down on her lean hips, tickling him and kissing him, loving him and holding him up, owning him with all her might. No child ever born was as beautiful. But he had a motor of his own and he wriggled free, and slid down the girl’s narrow hips to the ground.
“Sad,” thought Helen, “that he has a mind of his own already. And a pity. I love them so, with all my heart, and then they grow up. You’d think I would have learned by now – every girl’s bittersweet pain – when they have children.”
The littlest boy made a surprise beeline for his mother’s lap. He leapt up and in. “My baby!” Hers and no one else’s. What a beautiful son, to come to her in all this tumult and agitation, and show the other women how much he loved his mama. He sat quietly and listened to the women talk – he turned his face toward whoever was talking – while she dandled him gently on her thighs. Then he was off.
A middle-aged woman who had never had children opened her arms like a funnel to catch him, but he dodged her. No one, not even he, knew what drew him where. And he would remember none of this. A four-year-old doesn’t remember. He does things, and he thinks things, and he is things – but he won’t remember any of it. The things will be retained though, in his body, like raw building materials that make a house.
He ran upstairs, down the hallway to his sisters’ bedroom. He turned around and ran back down the hallway, and down the stairs, and through the kitchen, and outside again, through the gauntlet of women and girls whom he dodged gracefully, down to where Tommy was roasting chicken. The young red-headed cousin was sitting on Tommy’s lap. She was laughing, and her long red hair was falling into Tommy’s face, and he was laughing, and Blacky was barking, so the littlest boy went running, his shaggy blond hair flying like a shock of wheat.
“What a pretty girl he would have been,” said the young red-headed cousin.
“You think so?” asked Tommy.
“I’d put curlers in his hair and take a picture!”
The littlest boy ran into the apple orchard, weaving in and out of the apple trees that had been planted by grandfather Mathias, the man who had died four years ago this month at the age of ninety-six, two months almost to the day before he was born, which had set off this whole family reunion business, and he was told casually that he was the veritable reincarnation of his grandfather.
He ran upstairs to his sisters’ bedroom. He heard footsteps coming. He hid behind the door. A teenage boy came in the room and the littlest boy jumped out to scare him. The boy shut the door and put a chair at an angle up against it. He pulled down his pants, and his underwear too. The littlest boy’s mouth came level to the boy’s middle. The smell was powerful. The boy touched the back of the littlest boy’s head and gently pulled him closer, then the little boy’s mouth was pressed open a little, then something fleshy poked in, but just a little, but then a little further, and then with one big unexpected shove the thing was at the back of Matty’s throat. He gagged and squirmed – then something squirted out.
The room went still.
The windows wide open.
The back yard down there.
Men playing cards.
Chicken smell wafting in.
One window curtain moving softly in the breeze.
Dust moats floating in sunshine.
Matty vomited on his shirt.
The teenage boy pulled out a piece of toilet paper that he had ready in his shirt pocket.
“Don’t tell anyone, okay. If you do, something bad will happen to you. Very bad. So just don’t tell anyone. No matter what, it’s a secret, so keep it. It’s very important not to tell.”
The teenage boy put the wad of soaked toilet paper back in his shirt pocket and said, “Don’t forget now, okay?”
He left the room.
Matty gagged and spit up, gagged and spit up – while in the room below, his mother, and all the women and girls gathered in the kitchen and outside on the front lawn, were talking about babies, and how they loved them, but they grew up so fast. The women who knew shook their heads in commiseration at the young girls whose losses were yet to come. The girls listened intently.
One thing about the teenage boy. He wore a hat. A white fishing hat with shiny lures pinned all around it. Matty had never seen a hat like that.
The fourteen-year-old-boy rode home in the back seat late that afternoon, and was quiet. You would think I would give you time to breathe, but there wasn’t any time. No break for the weary. The teenage boy’s friend (Matty’s cousin from Lake Minnetonka) asked if everything was okay.
He said it was, but he had done a bad thing and he was going to pay for it. He had been looking at girls all afternoon. The younger sister, especially, so blond and cute. But he hadn’t been able to even talk to her. He had wanted nothing more than to kiss her and suck on her lovely budding breasts.
He had endured a hard-on for hours. He had had to flip it up in his pants and strap it down with his belt. His cock. That’s what it was. A gross thing that hung down between his legs and wanted out. It got hard all the time, and he had to deal with it. He was sick of it. Of doing it by himself. Keeping it in his pants. And no one should ever know it was there? He had an animal’s cock between his legs and he was to pretend it wasn’t there?
It was just an organ, he thought, like a liver, or a heart, or a kidney – but it was located outside his body – how strange. This half-organ thing that hung down off of him which wanted to reach and touch its other half. To fuck – and make itself whole. The truth.
He muttered “unbelievable” to the window.
“What is?” said his friend, Matty’s cousin.
He stared out the window, half in a trance, at the fields and farms and telephone poles and lakes sailing by.
“Damn it,” he thought, “I molested that kid.”
His friend nudged him and asked what he was thinking.
“Molest sounds better than rape,” he thought. “I don’t actually know the difference, but it sounds better. Anyway, I’ll never go back to that farm again. I hate farms. I’ll never visit any farm ever again.
Shit happens, you know. You can’t control everything. And if it’s anybody’s fault, it’s its fault. But anyway, you can’t change the past. What’s done is done. I’ll never do it again. God, the look on the kid’s face.
He said to his friend, “Time moves so quickly, you know. I was just thinking how we got out of school in May and it’s already August, and it seems like no time has gone by, and in two weeks it’ll be time to back to school. Isn’t time strange?”
The fourteen-year old boy would never tell anyone. And more importantly, he would never have to.
Scratch that scene I just presented about the fourteen-year-old boy riding back to the city in the back seat of a car. Matty didn’t know anything about that. His awareness was restricted to what was inside him and what was right around him. A thing had been shoved into his mouth, and he had gagged. White gunk had shot out and scorched the back of his throat, then it had run down his chin and onto his shirt. Whoever had done it was gone. A fourteen-year-old boy may well have ridden back to his home, thinking in the back seat, but what he thought is pure conjecture, and it is unwarranted, and I won’t allow it. I am going to stick to Matty and the evidence inside and right around him.