I hate Stew but he sells weed. So one Saturday, me, Mike, and Mike’s brother Ross drive Stew’s fuck-friend Boudreau out to Stew’s house to cop.
Boudreau sits up front which is fine with me except that I have to look at the back of her head with her blond hair feathering all the way back into gross split ends.
Mike and Ross are clearly all hopped up that she’s in the car—she works with them at Mattatuck Manufacturing where they make brake cables and she’s like the only woman there so when she walks across the floor at the factory, everyone just goes nuts, sticking their tongues through their peace-sign fingers. Stew cheats on his wife with her, which is one reason that I hate him. Also he acts like he’s the shit, buying this huge new truck all on credit which Mike said they’re going to have to repo.
Stew lives out by Holy Land, which I’ve driven past a million times but never been to and I always wondered about it. Holy Land is a hill with a big lit-up cross on it off of Exit 19 in Waterbury where some guy spent his life building a miniature Bethlehem. On the side of the hill it says in big letters: Holy Land U.S.A.
Turns out Holy Land is in a shitty neighborhood. Stew’s house is a real dump with those little diamond-shaped windows in the front door and dirty plastic toys all over the yard and a weight bench and Stew’s big red truck out front all wet and shiny from having just been washed.
His house smells like corn chips. Inside, there are about eight sectionals of a sofa that don’t fit together. They’re all blue and very padded and they take up the whole room.
Stew’s wife is sitting on the sofa and she’s rocking a baby and a cigarette. She’s really skinny and mean-looking and poor. I don’t know how else to describe it. You can’t blame her for looking mean with Boudreau right there with one erect nipple busting out of her t-shirt and flirting with her fat thighs spreading as she opens and shuts her knees, all keyed up being around Stew.
Stew slips off to the kitchen with Boudreau to I’m sure grab her ass and they get us beers and we all sit down on those weird sectionals of sofa while Ross cleans a big bag of weed.
They’re watching a Charles Bronson movie on the TV. Death Wish II.
In Death Wish II, these guys break into Charles Bronson’s house. Charles Bronson’s maid is home. She’s like 50 or something and they rape her. Well, first they make her kneel down and face the bed. Then one guy pulls up her dress and pulls down her underwear and kisses her butt and she’s crying and everything and then he rapes her—they all do—and the whole time they’re all hooting and laughing and jumping around.
While this is on, Stew has rolled a fat one and, as he’s passing it around, his other kid walks into the room. She’s like five. Or four. She’s young and she’s dressed like a sticky little K-Mart princess. I smile at her and I feel really sorry for her. She can’t stop staring at me. I imagine that she’s thinking that maybe I’m some kind of good example for her.
I have never seen a Charles Bronson movie before. It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen. They kept the TV on, even though the little girl was standing there. They kept passing the joint and Boudreau is sitting right there and the mother is smoking and the rapists were raping the maid who’s screaming and Stew’s little girl is just standing there watching me.
I don’t know what the fuck was wrong with me, but when Mike passed me the joint, I took a hit. I thought about not doing it but, in the end, I went ahead anyway.
Later on in the Charles Bronson movie, this lady said to one of the rapists who felt bad after what he did, “You dipped your wick just like the rest of them.” Dipped your wick. It was so disgusting.
But I did just what the rest of them did.
I wanted to go to Holy Land when we left, but Ross had someplace else to be.
Years later, I finally did get out to Holy Land. The place was all abandoned and decrepit and spooky with stuff like the Ten Commandments cut out of bits of carpet and verse spelled out in those gold letters you buy at the hardware store for mailboxes. The miniature Bethlehem was rotting and covered with graffiti. I was walking around by myself and I heard a scream in the bushes that scared the shit out of me and this peacock walked out. It was like it was a dream. Like I was on the grounds of some sultan’s palace.
The parents were in the kitchen with the hostess, drinking wine from plastic cups, eating hummus, talking about the drought. The aunt stood in the living room, a safe distance away, running her hand through her niece’s hair, which was flecked with sparkles and bits of grated cheese.
A boy with purple lips stared.
“Are you her grandmother?” he asked.
He was wearing a fake coonskin cap and eating a popsicle.
“No,” she said. “Are you?”
He laughed, then sang, in a whisper, “Barney stole my SUV so I stuck a shotgun up his nose.”
He marched past the parents, out the kitchen door.
“Come outside,” said her niece, pulling her hand.
She followed them.
The parents didn’t seem to notice.
Outside was dry grass and dirty plastic toys fenced into a yard. They followed the boy through a slack swing set and a rotting picnic table into a thicket of saplings at the back of the lot.
In a clearing, three little girls sucked popsicles by a plank of wood leaned against a high fence like a ramp.
The littlest girl clutched a naked, snarled-haired Barbie wrapped in a washcloth. “I’m not scared,” the littlest girl was saying. “I just think it’s dangerous and I don’t want to do it.”
One of the bigger girls said to the aunt, “She says she’s going to tell the parents we’re climbing the fence.”
The boy ran up the plank. It bowed and rattled.
“Don’t!” the littlest girl said, and looked at the aunt.
The aunt had no idea if what they were doing was dangerous or not. She decided she didn’t feel like telling them what to do; she wasn’t their mother.
The boy looked over the fence.
“What’s there?” said one of the girls.
“Prisoners,” he said, dropping his popsicle stick onto the other side.
He turned and jumped down, falling on his knees. His coonskin cap fell off. The aunt considered picking it up for him, then decided not to.
He stood, brushing off his knees, looked at her, then picked it up himself.
“Wanna see our secret fort?” he asked.
“Absotively,” she said. “Posilutely,” she said to herself, following the boy through a rut behind the skinny trees, brown leaves clinging to their trunks all from one direction. There must have been a flood before the drought. The other girls walked behind them, the littlest one last.
They came to a circle of rocks: the fort. The boy stood on the largest rock.
The aunt sat. The littlest girl handed her the Barbie and asked, “Can you make her a braid?”
The Barbie’s hair was snarled and stiff. It took a few tries to get the braid right. The aunt re-wrapped the washcloth around the Barbie’s body until it made a good dress.
She handed the Barbie back to the girl who smoothed the braid and admired the dress.
Through a gap in the slats of the fence, the aunt could see a parking lot and the apartment complex where the prisoners lived.
The boy got up and stuck a finger through the slats like a gun.
“I could shoot a water pistol through here,” he said.
“I like your thinking,” the aunt said.
The boy picked up a stick. “Where are your children?”
“I don’t have any,” the aunt said. “Do you?”
“I want a rat.” He whipped a tree with the stick. “But they won’t let me. Stupid,” he said.
She nodded. She agreed.
The older girls were climbing into the crotch of a thicker tree.
“Help us spy on the grown-ups,” the boy said to the aunt.
She said, “What do you want me to find out?”
“Find out…” the boy kicked clumped-up leaves. “Find out…”
“These popsicles are magic,” one of the older girls said to the aunt, from the tree.
“How are they magic?” the aunt asked.
“When you eat them, they make you happy.”
“I want one of those,” the aunt said.
“But you’re already happy,” said the boy.
Sadness settled in her like cement.
“I guess they work when you watch people eat them too,” she said.
She picked up an old pie plate that had a butterfly wing stuck to it.
“That’s where we keep our treasures,” the boy said.
“Hold my popsicle,” her niece said, handing her the popsicle and climbing the tree. Skinny limbs on skinny limbs.
“There’s no room,” said one of the other girls to her niece.
The aunt didn’t interfere. She sucked the popsicle.
“Don’t!” her niece said to her.
“It jumped into my mouth. I’m trying to get it out.” She pretended to try to pull the popsicle out of her mouth.
The kids laughed. They were an easy audience and the deadness inside her pretended it wasn’t there.
The sound of crunching on the leaves came from the thicket.
“Uh-oh,” said the boy.
The hostess climbed through the trees and looked at the aunt, sitting on the rock, popsicle in her mouth, holding the pie plate.
“Let’s not play back here,” the hostess said, talking to the boy, smiling in a tight way. “Let’s come back to the party.”
The aunt stood and brushed leaves from her butt.
The girls jumped down from the tree. Her niece took the popsicle back.
As they followed the hostess through the trees, the aunt whispered to the boy, “What should I find out from the grown-ups?”
“Find out…” he said. He whacked a stick against a tree. “Find out…”
But he didn’t say.
The girls ran ahead across the yard to the parents at the picnic table.
Her niece climbed onto the bench, grabbed a handful of grated cheese from a plastic bowl and put it in her mouth.
The aunt didn’t say anything. She wasn’t her mother. She sat at the table and was given a paper plate of spaghetti and a plastic fork.
The boy stood on the picnic bench. “Barney stole my SUV,” he sang, “So I stuck a shotgun up his nose.”
“What did we say about singing that song?” his mother, the hostess, said in a firm, soft, annoying voice. “Look at me.”
The boy looked at her, chin raised.
“What did we say about that?” his mother asked.
“Sit down at the table,” said the man who must have been the boy’s father.
The boy sat and put a handful of spaghetti in his mouth.
“We don’t use our hands,” his mother said, in her tone.
“She did.” He pointed at the niece.
The boy’s parents looked at each other.
The aunt poured herself a cup of wine.
She could still taste the popsicle.
The parents talked about Jazzfest and litigation, schools and bicycles, triathalons and raised garden beds. Drones. The drought.
The kids went into the house.
The aunt drank more wine. A mosquito swirled in her cup. The spaghetti stuck to itself. A nut fell off a tree onto the table.
Barney stole my SUV so I stuck a shotgun up his nose repeated in her head.
Her niece was back, whispering in her ear, smelling like mint and dirt, “Come into the house.”
The aunt climbed off the picnic bench without excusing herself to the parents and followed her niece into the house, through the scuffed, cluttered hall, into the boy’s bedroom, where the kids were standing next to the littlest girl who was wearing a mask they’d made from a paper plate, tied to the back of her head with a string.
The mask she was wearing was a boy, with brown magic marker eyes, red eyelashes, pink smile.
“This is your son, Matthew,” her niece said, pushing the little girl in the mask toward her. “He was late to the party.”
The little girl in the Matthew mask ran her fingers over her smiling paper plate face.
“Hello, Matthew,” the aunt said to the plate face.
“Tell the grown-ups Matthew wants a popsicle,” said the boy.
“Okay,” said the aunt.
“Grape,” he said.
“Okay,” she said.
From the kitchen came a screened door bang and the sound of parents talking.
The boy led the aunt out, with her “son,” Matthew. The other kids followed.
“What did you find out from the grown-ups?” the boy asked, holding her arm.
“Nothing,” the aunt said. “They didn’t say anything interesting,” she said.
They went into the kitchen where the parents were helping the hostess clean up.
The aunt held her arm around “Matthew’s” shoulders. Matthew adjusted his paper face with its fixed pink smile.
“This is my son,” the aunt said to the hostess. “Matthew. He’s sorry he was late and he wondered if he could have a popsicle.”
The adults stopped talking and kept helping.
“Grape,” said the boy.
The hostesses’ eyes flickered over the aunt.
“I’m sorry, Matthew,” the hostess said, banging spaghetti into the garbage can. “We’re done with the popsicles for tonight.”
“Matthew was at the zoo,” one of the girls said.
The children laughed.
The aunt said, “He meant to come earlier, but he was detained at the reptile house.”
The children laughed again.
The hostess said, more sharply, “I’m sorry, Matthew. We’re not having popsicles now.”
The parents were wrapping things in plastic and throwing things away. None of them were talking, and none of them looked at her.
The aunt bent and held her son’s shoulders. She looked into his paper plate face.
“I’m sorry, Matthew,” she said. “You came too late.”