Ben’s father had been the guidance counselor, so photos of him still hung in the George County High School hallways, a pillar among pillars in every class picture for sixteen straight years. Sometimes when Ben, a sophomore, had time between classes, he’d think of stopping and seeing his father again, miniaturized. Charles Lamar Collins. Always in a suit and tie. But Ben hadn’t followed through with the thought in a long time. Not since the school year began over a couple of months ago, when his mother decided to confide in him the truth of what had actually happened.
Two years ago his father had had a heart attack in one of the rooms at the Rocky Creek Inn near the truck stop on Highway 98, not three miles from home. Sometimes at Wal-Mart and Save-A-Lot Ben wondered if this or that gay-looking man was the one who’d dialed 911. If the man who seemed gay recognized Ben from pictures in his father’s wallet. If the man had ever touched boys.
Ben’s mother, Patti, managed a climate-controlled storage facility across the state line in Mobile. That was where she met Doris, also a widow. Doris’s husband, Jack, had been blind and smoked unfiltered Camels. For months, Ben’s mother had assumed Jack had died of lung cancer. Her friendship with Doris had been based on this assumption.
“Oh, the cigarettes my husband smoked!” Doris would say as she lingered at the water cooler after loading more of Jack’s belongings into her unit. When Jack had died, he was up to two and a half packs a day. Then, yesterday at the water cooler, Doris started to cry, admitting it wasn’t the cigarettes that had killed him. That, yes, he’d smoked like a chimney. That, yes, smoking should have killed him. But Jack had committed suicide, and Doris had wanted her husband’s guns out of the house. Guns in the house had never made sense in the first place. And she couldn’t bear the smell of the smoke on his clothes. She couldn’t keep them at home any longer. “The gun smoke, I mean. The clothes he wore when it happened. The police gave them back.” And in that conversation she mentioned a dog, a seven-year-old yellow Lab named Jenny.
On their way to Doris’ house, Patti told Ben not to mention any of this.
Ben rolled his eyes. Doris must have been really fat. All of his mother’s friends wound up fat.
* * *
Doris lived in Semmes, just outside of Mobile on Highway 98. Ben remembered his father calling the road “Bloody 98,” though not deliciously the way Ben sometimes did. Ben didn’t recall his mother ever calling it that.
On the drive, Ben played Quadrophenia, one of his father’s CDs. His father had obsessively listened to the seventies, while his mother simply listened to whatever. “Helpless Dancer” had become Ben’s latest favorite song, and not because of the word “queers” but because Roger Daltrey sang with the same anger that Pete Townshend hammered his piano. A march of total fuck you. The same anger, exactly, that Ben felt himself in Mississippi, far from England, far from the seventies, every time he cut his thighs with the razor after shaving his legs and underarms and balls.
Ben and his mother raised their feet when they crossed over the Alabama state line. It was what people did where they were from, if they wanted good luck.
After Wilmer came Semmes, and after a couple of turns they followed a gravel drive to Doris’s house. A four-foot statue of St. Francis greeted them meekly from a flowerbed of daylilies, stone birds resting on his open stone arms. Hummingbird feeders hung along the eaves of the front porch like gaudy Christmas lights.
Ben had thin blond hair like Tom Petty. Sometimes some smart guy at school would try arguing with him, saying Tom Petty wasn’t seventies, he was eighties. No, he was nineties. Ben thought they were idiots. Sometimes before meeting someone new, someone like Doris or like Jenny or even like St. Francis, he would reflect on his appearance and then wonder what they would think of him so thin, with hair so straight and blond and long like Tom Petty’s, with such slender legs and arms and fingers like stems. His father would let hair curl up into a muff on his lower back. Sometimes he forgot to shower and brush his teeth. His mother was always having to remind him. Handsome enough but a little gross, a little forgetful. And in the company of animals, Charles Lamar had dreadful allergies.
His mother shut off the engine, and when the Who vanished to stunning silence, Ben glanced in her direction.
She smiled and reached out a hand to pat his thigh and clasp it. “I love you,” she said.
He sucked in air as if he were about to say it back but merely nodded, and his hair fell over his eyes.
His mother was a delicate plant herself, looking most like Nancy Wilson of Heart, so she could do better than the awkward men at church who wore Wrangler shirts and jeans and white socks. But she didn’t go anywhere but church. Just work and church. And Wal-Mart. And Save-A-Lot, of course. And gas stations. That was it.
They’d opened their doors but hadn’t gotten out yet when the front door to the house opened and Ben saw the smiling face of a yellow Lab, and then a woman much heavier than his mother, of course, expressionless above a flowered dress of apparent formless burden.
Ben hopped out of the car, expecting a return of enthusiasm, for the dog to bolt for the freedom of the outdoors to check him out, but Jenny calmly stood her ground.
“Hi, Doris,” his mother said. She shut her door and walked toward the porch.
Ben neglected to shut his door as he sometimes did, and following her, he noticed the air here smelled of gardenias. He noticed Jenny notice it, too, tipping her nose to that sweet air and wagging her tail, inching forward toward him but only because, it seemed, the woman did.
“Hi, Patti. And you must be Ben.”
Ben knelt to a knee and patted the solid bone of the Labrador’s cranium, the felt-like leather of her ears, and she swiped his temple with her tongue. He laughed, and so did his mother and the woman named Doris who was giving him her husband’s dog.
When the dog lurched at him again with her tongue, Ben resisted retreat, simply closed his eyes, and that’s where she licked him and kept licking him, across the eyes, as if she were trying to lick a crater in his face that she could drink from, like the crater in his chest he could eat from.
“She does that, Ben. Jack loved that.” The woman laughed, but she was crying, too.
* * *
In the eighth grade, outside in the courtyard during morning break, Ben had taken his shirt off, a stunt to make only a few guys laugh. He lay down on the pavement and then emptied a box of Fruit Loops into the bowl of his inverted sternum, followed by a carton of milk. Then before a gathering storm of students who’d flooded from the cafeteria to see his spectacle, he proceeded to eat his cereal with a plastic spoon. That was his first suspension.
His second suspension came the following year, when he was a freshman, finally in high school, where his father should have still been living and working if life were fair. Classmates had been begging him to do his thing again with the cereal. Please, Fruit Loop. But Ben didn’t like their nickname. So this time he popped the lid on a can of SpaghettiOs with Meatballs. He told the crowd before he dug in that his wish was that he would forever be remembered as Pothole.
* * *
Inside her dark house, in the living room which smelled of Febreze, with the TV muted, Doris had brown carpet, not hardwood like Ben and his mother had at home, and on that carpet, behind closed curtains instead of blinds, the woman took up a sheet of yellow ledger paper lying on the sofa. It crinkled in her hand from the hard-pressed cursive that tattooed the page in black ballpoint. Jenny sat and watched Doris, as if alertly waiting.
“Ben,” she said, drawing his attention away from Jenny. “Always use the same word commands because she’s smart. She’s sensitive to differences. So don’t say, ‘Fetch the leash’ or ‘Gimme the leash’ or anything else.” She turned to Jenny. “Bring me your leash,” she said, and Jenny immediately hopped to her paws and trotted toward the front door and returned with the leash dragging from her mouth. “And, Ben, keep the leash in the same place, always the same. It’s consistency. It’s routine. You learn that, she’ll learn that.” Doris looked at Patti and winked.
“Now, Ben, hold out your hand.”
Ben held out his hand, and Jenny looked away from the woman, at Ben’s offered hand, and walked toward it.
“Don’t reach for it,” said Doris. “Let her give it to you.”
Ben held his hand still and watched Jenny step close and nuzzle the leash against his hand, until he took hold of it, and then she let go.
Doris demonstrated each of Jenny’s tricks with similar specific instructions. How Jenny found her bed. How she found the remote. Then Doris strapped on Jenny’s harness and asked Ben to stand to Jenny’s right, always the right. Ben slipped his fingers gingerly around the grip, feeling the grooves that had been worn into the leather by a much larger hand.
“Now walk toward the kitchen and say, ‘Find my chair,’” so Ben did that, toward the brighter room with windows with valances but not curtains, and a round oak table with cane-bottom chairs.
“Find my chair,” said Ben, and Jenny led him to the easiest chair to get to, the first one with open space which faced the wall and a clock shaped like a skillet, black like one, with minute and hour hands shaped like a fork and knife. Ben looked down at Jenny to pat her and saw that her head was resting on the seat as if pointing to it.
“That was Jack’s chair, but you can teach her your own chair at home. Just say over and over again, ‘My chair, my chair,’ then later say, ‘Find my chair,’ and she’ll do it. She’ll want to.”
Ben stroked her head and began to feel a sting radiating through his cheeks from a sustained grin. He could teach her to drink from the bowl in his chest. Maybe she’d learn to want to, listening to “Bodies”:
Body! I’m not an animal
Body! I’m not an abortion
Not that his father ever listened to the Sex Pistols.
Doris was saying, “Can you believe the place in Mobile who trains service dogs didn’t want her?”
His mother was aghast.
Something about age. But fuck this and fuck that. It was now the Ben and Jen Show. He would free her from this bloody mess.
* * *
Before Doris would let them leave her alone to live with her skillet clock, she had another stunt or two to pull. First, she shared her own nickname. She hid in her bedroom closet, back among dated shoes and belts and purses and fat dresses, and in the living room with the brown carpet Ben told Jenny, as if he were Jack with monstrous hands, “Find Dot.” This time Ben closed his eyes, and in an exhilarating journey of faith and smell, Jenny led him with ease and care and sweet emotion deep into the house of no music.
Doris checked her list. She’d covered all the commands she’d written down for him on the yellow sheet of paper, except for one. Yep. “Relieve yourself.”
And Jenny did. Then Doris gave Jenny a hug. They kissed a mutual kiss. Then Ben loaded a box and a trash bag into the trunk. Food, medicine, toys, claw clippers, you name it.
“What a bitch,” said Ben, riding away in the backseat with Jenny, his mother looking in the rear-view mirror at the woman, and then darting pinched eyes at him. Aghast. All aghast.
“She doesn’t want her husband’s dog?” he said. He could be aghast, too. “It was her frigging dog, too, you know.”
“Ben, be nice,” his mother said. “She just gave you an amazing dog. Show some respect. Some frigging appreciation.”
“Amazing,” said Ben, wrapping an arm around Jenny’s chest. She could lose some weight herself. “It’s like you selling your wedding dress in a garage sale for twenty-five dollars, huh, Mom?” The car was picking up speed on Bloody 98 like the engine was beneath him.
“Nice shot there,” she said.
“Frigging right,” he said.
* * *
At home, like a travel guide, Ben showed Jenny around, pointing out all his favorite places to sit on his way to his room and his two remotes. Then he dug out the water bowl from the dog box and filled it, setting it in the good-for-nothing spot next to the refrigerator, a space too narrow for a microwave cart or anything else they’d ever needed it for, making it finally good for something.
Next, he chose a place for Jenny’s bed, beside his bed. Then to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, he chilled, just Ben and Jen, hanging out. Sometimes in the silence between songs, he’d sit up, awakened by hunger, and rummage through the dog box or the dog bag to see what all was in them. He only thought of Chris once. Because of Jenny, already spelling “dog” backward.
* * *
Jenny liked to roll onto her back while he listened to music and stretch her legs in opposite directions, as if trying to form a cantilever bridge his play-car hand could cross.
She liked to chew a pig’s ear.
She liked to lick his thighs after he cut himself, and to lick his eyes after he cut himself. Why couldn’t he quit cutting himself?
Away from the music in his room, she liked to help him dodge obstacles in the garage—a pile of nails, a 2 x 4 protruding at head level, his father’s Callaway golf bag kicked over with the clubs sprayed out like pussy flowers. He’d stopped his mother from selling the clubs, and he felt stupid now. He deserved to be blind as well as broke. He deserved to suffer the pain in his stomach when he refused to eat. He deserved the memory of Chris sliding a hand into his chest so close to his heart and lungs, which his doctor said were slowly rolling up like flags. He would have corrective surgery soon, but he’d always remember his life before his hole was filled, no matter how hungry he grew or how much his thigh meat stung or however he stood in the mirror, demurely or frontally, despite the scars, whether with a boner or not, with or without his penis strung behind—a beautifully abused Tom Petty.
* * *
Ben liked to take long walks along the roads and highways. He’d wear his father’s Blues Brothers sunglasses and carry a putter handle-down in his right hand and hold Jenny’s harness in his left, to keep Jenny on the left, always on the left. He’d walk until he could begin to forget himself a little. Not a lot. As if he’d grown up some and there was real distance between who he’d been before Jenny and who he was now. Still Ben, but Ben who was lost to air and earthly sound. Blackbird singing in the dead of night.
Ben only knew to measure time with increments of epoch. So if his walk were long enough, he could begin to imagine he was living ten years into the future. He was someone no longer listening to the seventies. So absurd but he’d evolved and was listening to the eighties, and living in San Diego or somewhere similar. A place on Mobile Bay-like water, warmed by the Mississippi sun, with California canyons he could fit his adult-size hands in and know, smiling, that he’d been there before and finally was home.
Sometimes he carried a water bottle in his back pocket or let Jenny carry it in her mouth. Sometimes he’d need to stop and give Jenny a drink in the wildflowers or take one himself. Sometimes somebody passing would honk and he’d wave to prove he was raised right, and was in the right, that he had the hands that mattered. But if somebody stopped to check on him, stretched out by the road, or slowed to yell obscenities, he was likely to say, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” That or shout it.
If he ever stopped to face the road as if he had any mind to cross it, Jenny would block his path with her body until she saw it was clear.
Once he made it as far as Rocky Creek and dipped his feet in, until numb. Then once, past the truck stop, to Rocky Creek Inn.
“Hey, buddy, dogs aren’t allowed in here,” the desk dude hollered at him before he even got inside the air-conditioned lobby good.
“Ever heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act? Well, I’m a frigging American.”
“Hey, sorry, buddy. I thought you were just goofing around. Isn’t that a golf club?”
“Yeah, well, so? I know my rights, and you don’t have the right to question them.”
“How long have you worked here?” With his eyes closed, Ben didn’t wonder as much how others viewed him.
“Long enough,” said the dude. “Six, seven months or so. Why?”
Ben didn’t answer. His hands melted into the carpet as he lowered himself into a sitting position.
“So how can I help you?”
“The tragedy,” said Ben, lying back, “is you can’t.” He took the water bottle from Jenny and pulled up his shirt.
“Kid, where are your parents?”
“Find your water,” said Ben. He couldn’t do it enough times. He wasn’t ready for surgery.
“Just eat another bite,” his mother was always telling him.
“Open your eyes.”
“Please talk to me.”
* * *
His third suspension came the next day after he woke early and shaved his head. At first, in chemistry, he refused to open his eyes, saying he couldn’t, and then when he finally opened them for the principal he claimed he couldn’t see and needed his dog. Principal Havard dialed his mother’s work number. He explained the situation pretty accurately then handed the phone to Ben.
“Here, take it,” said Principal Havard, thrusting the phone at him.
Ben swiped clumsily for it with both hands. He missed three times, then finally found Principal Havard’s hairy arm and then the phone and pressed it to his ear.
“Listen to me, Ben Lamar, you open your eyes and use them this instant. You hear me?”
“No, Mother, Principal Havard hasn’t touched me inappropriately.” His voice rose. “I’m telling you, he hasn’t.” He slapped Principal Havard’s hands away, grabbing at the phone. “Get off me, pervert. Mom, help!”
* * *
His mother grounded him indefinitely, and that meant no music and no TV and no going past the yard with Jenny. She told Jenny to bring both remotes to her.
“We’ll have to see someone,” she told him. “There’s no shame in that. You leave me no choice. You won’t talk to me.”
“Look at me, Ben.”
Closed, there was no difference between his eyes and anyone else’s. He reached for the candy cigarettes in his back pocket. He thumped the box, then shook one out and let it hang on his bottom lip.
“You’re ridiculous,” his mother said. “Just eat it.”
He patted his pockets for a lighter and Jenny hopped onto his bed.
“I’m going to make some calls. Right now,” she told him.
He took a long drag and blew a ring, a perfect halo. But then it wobbled and weakened and fattened into an ultra-thin dress belt big enough for Jenny to jump through. Then the door closed, and like that it vanished.
* * *
Eventually, ideas of solvency congealed into boredom, or calm, and he slept. But when he woke hours later, he woke with a start to a house of otherness—he hated that—and to quickly ground himself in the silent dark, he had no choice, did he, but to cheat? He opened his eyes, though only for a sticky peek at the hellish numbers of his clock. His mother, after midnight, would be a wreck in sleep. She was always dead by ten.
He stroked Jenny awake, feeling the lush fur in a flexing fist along her neck, then eased out of bed to put on socks and shoes and a hoodie. He made sure he had his cigs and putter-cane and sunglasses and buckled the harness around Jenny’s chest. In the kitchen he grabbed two waters and locked the door with the key that hung on a nail he remembered his father hammering into the frame.
These weren’t new ideas, seeing Chris, going to his house, but he’d always been too afraid to go, to say what he had trouble expressing. Now, he had Jenny to be different with. Tom Petty was no punk, but Michael Stipe would take no shit. If somebody were to spot him in San Diego or somewhere similar and chase him into a liquor store, Ben knew Michael Stipe would turn around and point him out through the glass.
Ben had ridden to Chris’s house dozens of times, on the old single-lane leg of Bloody 98, toward town on the third of seven hills, an acre back from the highway, the only place he knew of with a black-top drive and a swimming pool and a pool table. Hell, and speakers around the pool that were waterproof. Shit, sitting among the shrubs like shrubs.
Chris had guns. A couple of rifles, a couple of shotguns. Ben had never hunted except for the one time with Chris, for squirrels that never materialized on sloping ground shrouded by pines north of town, or east. Somewhere not far, on the other side of a gate that Chris had to unlock and Ben had to lock back after Chris drove through. Ben had never owned his own gun. If his father ever had, Ben didn’t know about it. His father made it plain he didn’t like guns, didn’t ever want to hunt again. They could go without him.
Waiting for squirrels to come root for acorns in a piney wood. Nothing in hindsight could sound more queer for a thirty-something-year-old and a twelve-year-old to be doing. Chris, whispering of God as he unbuttoned his jacket and flannel shirt to show off an appendectomy scar. “I was as close to death as you can be,” he’d said.
Ben envied Chris’s short wavy black hair, how it never moved if under water or in wind, like a wig of wire, and his chest looked like a mannequin’s.
“Can I?” asked Ben, gesturing with a surgeon’s hand. He didn’t remember permission or looking for it. He simply remembered reaching out and touching the rippled muscles with his fingertips.
When he pulled away, he unbuttoned his own jacket and shirt, and showed Chris what he’d never imagined he would, not once in months, since summer, when Chris had first appeared at Rocky Creek Baptist Church—a banker moonlighting as a youth director. He had organized a volleyball game, a camping trip, and then had hosted pool parties. Ben would go and would swim but would keep his T-shirt on, which billowed up like a cloud that followed him but just as quickly, out of water, sagged like a valance of old-man foreskin. Now, he was guiding Chris’s hand into his cavity.
“Have you ever been as close to life?” asked Ben.
Chris didn’t answer.
And then he did, as if God had told him what to say. Chris said, “You really got me.”
Ok, Van Halen was unexpected but Ben was game. “Ain’t talkin’ ’bout love,” he said.
Chris laughed and drew his hand away, and the game already seemed over.
Maybe Ben had chosen a song with the wrong sentiment. He corrected himself. “So this is love?”
Ben waited, but Chris had gone comatose, staring up at tree sky as if the squirrels were about to glide down any moment. “Somebody get me a doctor,” Ben giggled. He sat up and shrugged. “Sinner’s swing.” Still no reaction. Did Chris start something he couldn’t finish? “Runnin’ with the devil,” Ben growled.
This time he got a smirk. Chris was warming back up. So Ben came closer to what he’d wanted to say all along. He said, “Eruption.” And then without waiting for a response, he pushed it, he knew even then. “Bottoms up!” he said and they both cock launched.
* * *
By the time they’d finally reached the turn and followed the smooth blacktop drive another acre, shit, it was late. He was tired and cramping from hunger and panting—they both were. He could’ve dropped to the ground and gone to sleep. He’d thought all along that when he arrived he’d be so pumped up he wouldn’t hesitate to strip off his clothes and pound the door, barking and howling, Ben and Jen a symphony. Then he’d lie down angel-spread on the pool path, and when the lights came on, Chris and his wife would witness the sweet miracle of a dog drinking from the chest of a boy. But that wasn’t all. They would also witness a boy sustaining the universe. Until he was empty. Then they’d witness the well-trained universe, now satisfied, turning beastly, and after a smoke, climbing upon the sweet boy’s frailty to take a squat. The metaphor beginning to resonate for those even too comatose to love.
By then, there was bound to be some complaint, some defense, and that’s when, unlike his father, he’d hop up, alive with his putter-cane, and begin swinging. His planning stopped there.