“Wanna come by and see ’em?” Alvin asked, his eyes glittering with the desperate anticipation of rebellion.
“See what? Your dad’s old dirty magazines?” Terry was jealous, not of the dirty magazines, but of Alvin’s bravery at having stolen them. He was making a valiant attempt to disguise it with feigned apathy.
“You gotta be a homo or something,” said Alvin, grinning. This was every eighth-grade boy’s kryptonite, and Alvin knew how to apply pressure where it was needed.
“Look, you know I’m not supposed to look at that stuff,” Terry said, a little quieter than before.
“Oh, yeah. Your daddy’s the local holy man, so you’re gonna hide under the sheets until some chick crawls in there and tickles your nuts.” Alvin was determined not to be alone in his debauchery.
“Fine. I’ll come by tonight. This better be something pretty damn special,” Terry said.
“Just show up, loser.” Alvin trotted away, backpack over one shoulder, a triumphant look on his face.
Terry looked at his feet and hitched up his own backpack. He slammed his locker door with a hollow clang! and headed to class.
He had never seen a naked girl before, although LaVerne Michaels had offered him a peek once. He had chickened out.
He opened the door to the classroom and for the next couple of hours he forgot about it.
Terry thumped up the concrete steps at the front of Alvin’s house, a low, dirty-white jumble of siding and rooftop with a tiny concrete porch that offered just enough room to get from the top step to the screen door. Terry gripped the handrail, his knuckles white as he squeezed the iron pipe fittings. He had barely started to knock when the door swung open.
“Get in here, faggot,” Alvin whispered urgently. “You tryin’ to let the whole house know?”
Terry stepped past Alvin into the house, the slur still ringing in his ears. The house smelled like dust, and the worn down green carpet and dark wood panelling spoke of age and cheap manufacturing. A mirror with the Coors logo glinted above the particle-wood entertainment center.
He wondered why he still hung out with Alvin. They had been friends since kindergarten, inseparable for years. When they hit junior high last year, the two of them had gone different directions. Terry had gotten more involved in the church, helping his dad with preparations for Sunday services. He had felt the pulling of hormones, was feeling it now in fact (he wouldn’t be here, otherwise), but felt no need to lose sight of his life over it. Alvin, on the other hand, had crashed headfirst into a wall of slobbering puberty. It was nearly impossible to have a conversation with him that didn’t involve his or someone else’s privates, a fact that was growing increasingly tiresome.
They plodded further into the house, as quietly as possible considering the creaky floorboards, with Alvin in the lead. With each step, Terry’s anticipation was turning into a knot in his stomach. His heart was thumping quickly, and there was a rush of endorphins that made him feel better, his ears going red and warm.
“Why are we sneaking?” Terry whispered.
“Dad’s asleep in his room,” Alvin said, glaring at him over his shoulder. “Now shut up.”
They reached Alvin’s room and shut the door softly. Alvin breathed a sigh of relief as if they were now beyond the need to hide their nefarious doings, and went straight for the closet. Terry stayed by the door.
This place had changed so much over the past couple of years and it made Terry feel lost. Crumpled centerfolds now hung where posters of cars had once been. The only thing that remained of their childhood was the poster for the Deftones show they had snuck out to see in sixth grade. Terry walked over and plopped on the bed with a sigh.
Alvin dug through his closet for a few minutes climbing through the refuse that had been shoved in to a depth of at least a foot. “One sec. Gotta hide this shit all the way at the back so the old man won’t find it,” Alvin said, his voice muffled by the closeness of the closet. He emerged moments later holding by the handle a large black art portfolio, the kind made out of fake leather with the zipper all the way around the top and sides. They had been asked to get one for an art class last year, and apparently Alvin had found a way to put his to good use beyond the confines of the classroom.
Without speaking, Alvin came over and laid the portfolio on the bed next to Terry, unzipping it and spreading it wide. Terry got up and stepped back, a little behind his friend, as if something unexpected might erupt from within. What emerged were about a dozen gloss-covered magazines, sliding against each other and out onto the bed, the portfolio’s zippers no longer in place to contain them. A few were Playboys, a couple were Hustlers, both of which Terry had heard of. The others looked like the kinds in convenience stores that came in black plastic that obscured the front cover. These had titles like “Asian Fever,” and “Barely Legal.” Terry had not heard of them.
“That’s a lot of porn,” Terry said barely loud enough to hear.
“Damn straight,” Alvin said, clearly proud of himself, a grin creeping over his features that reminded Terry of the Devil in an old Looney Tunes short.
For the next hour, they dug through the pile wordlessly. The Playboys were more tasteful, Terry thought, if you could call it that. The Hustlers were shocking, the whole magazine seemed drenched in sweat, all of female anatomy laid bare and painted with bedroom eyes and bright lipstick. Terry stayed away from the others, afraid of what he might see.
“I’ve gotta go,” Terry said, finally breaking the silence in a stunned monotone.
“You just got here.” Alvin said, looking up from a book titled “Bra Busters” that he was thumbing through maybe a little too casually.
“I know. It’s late. Dad will start calling around for me if I’m not home by seven.”
“Whatever, pussy,” Alvin said. He threw the magazine down on the bed and got up. “Come on.”
They walked back through the house quietly, again trying not to wake Alvin’s dad. Terry felt heavy, a little dazed. He had enjoyed the magazines, the rebellion, the tangible taboo of them, but as he saw more the novelty had worn off and all he could think about was whether he could keep this buried in him while shaking hands with the smiling churchgoers on Sunday, when his dad ruffled his hair after stepping down from the pulpit, sitting next to him as the choir began to sing. His silence would be like lying, not just to them, but to God. There is a distance that begins to form between a father and a son when secrets are kept, and Terry did not want to widen the gap, narrow though it currently was.
They did not have to worry about waking Alvin’s father. When they reached the living room he was sitting on the couch, beer in hand, face ragged and unshaven with dark circles under the eyes. He was not wearing a shirt. He looked away from the TV as they walked through the living room, first grunting, then as his eyes cleared and focused on Terry, he smiled. “Hey, Timmy!” The smile was not reassuring. It was a little too desperate like a clown sweating through his makeup. He sat up quick, jerking violently upright. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
Terry was horrified but shoved it down, unsure if his face would betray him. “Good, Mr K,” Terry said. Alvin’s dad hadn’t always been like this. About six months ago his wife, Alvin’s mama, had stopped showing up around town. Mr K’s (K for Kimball, same as Alvin) story had been that she ran off with some bastard tennis pro, pretty stereotypical stuff. There had been whispers of a less wholesome outcome, though. Alvin never talked about it.
Something in the man’s face changed and Terry worried that his expression had in fact turned on him, but Mr K just slumped back onto the couch and turned his attention back to the television as though he only had energy for so much pleasantness. “Glad to hear it,” he said.
The two boys left through the front door without continuing the conversation, Alvin’s head hanging in embarrassment. The cool air of mid-October was a pleasant shock to Terry, and emboldened him. When Alvin had shut the door behind them, Terry turned back.
“Alvin, I don’t feel right about looking at those magazines.”
“Shit,” Alvin said. “You sorry piece of…” he trailed off, seeming to run out of curse words for the moment. Instead, he turned his gaze to the side and pursed his lips.
“Look, I don’t think it’s right that you have them or that we looked,” Terry said. “I need to talk to my dad about it.”
“You need to talk to your dad,” Alvin repeated, still looking out to the street. “What the fuck happened to you, man?”
“Nothing,” Terry started.
“Nothing?” Alvin was looking at him now, his eyes fiery with rage. “You’re gonna go home and rat on me for nothing? No, it better be fucking something.”
“I’m not a rat,” Terry said, even though he felt like one. “I just need to know what to do now.”
“My dad is going to kill me.” Alvin over-annunciated every syllable, as if attempting to explain to someone who did not speak English. “He’s gonna fucking murder me if he finds out I lifted those out of the shed.”
Terry knew he was in the wrong. It hadn’t been Alvin’s fault he had seen those things. Terry had come here willingly and had looked with his own eyes. There had been no threat, no force. That didn’t change how he felt. “Look, I’m sorry your dad…”
“Sorry he what?” Alvin asked, tears in his eyes now, his voice cracking. “You don’t know nothing about it. I need you to keep your fucking mouth shut.”
“I’m sorry,” Terry spoke, the words catching in his throat, coming out hoarse. “I can’t.” He turned and walked off, leaving his crying friend on his small, dirty concrete porch. In a few minutes, the rain started.
When he saw his father, Terry spilled everything. It hurt, like opening a cut to let the blood out. Terry knew he was putting an end to a friendship that had lasted as long as he could remember, as long as he had been him, and barely knew who he would be without it. Still, this was necessary.
“Dad, I’m sorry,” Terry sobbed, still soaking wet from walking home in the rain, his infrequent tears only distinguishable from the rest of the moisture that clung to his cheeks by their downward movement.
They stood on the great covered front porch of their house, painted all in white with a dark gray wood floor. His father had met him there when he saw him coming up the drive.
“Youth is such a trouble, son,” Terry’s father said, his lilting southern drawl comforting Terry. “God puts these trials in our path for a reason, you know.”
Terry looked confused. His father should be angry, but somehow Terry had known he would find understanding here. He was quiet except for the occasional over-violent inhalation as his sobs subsided.
“Come, sit with me.” Terry’s father gestured to the porch swing a few steps away. They moved together and sat. “These things you saw aren’t evil, son. The body is a wondrous testament to God’s creation, and it should be displayed as such, not callously and lustfully like in the magazines you saw. That’s what makes them wrong.”
“But I knew I wasn’t supposed to look.” Terry was calm now, no longer crying.
“We abstain from these baser pleasures because God asks us to, but slips can be forgiven because we are human. I am glad you came to me, though. We can work through this together.” Terry’s father looked at him, his forehead wrinkled, a hand on Terry’s back. “I’m gonna need to call Alvin’s daddy, though.”
“No, Dad, please.” Terry begged, frantic. “Alvin’s so angry with me already.” He thought briefly of Mr K, shirtless, wild eyes searching the room in drunken confusion, his smile too big and too desperate. He felt a well of fear bubble up in his chest, but he could not think of a way to articulate it to his father. Instead, he stared down at his feet and shook.
“Mr Kimball needs to know about this. In time, I hope your friend will understand.”
Terry went to bed that night still thinking about the things his father had said, that Alvin would understand in time, that Mr K was a reasonable man and would have the good sense to treat the situation, and his son, fairly. For the first time, his father’s words failed to calm him.
At school the next day, Alvin was not in attendance. Terry thought Alvin might be avoiding him, not wanting to see him after the trouble he had caused.
Alvin was out the next day, too. That worried Terry because Alvin rarely missed. He saw school as a welcome respite from his home life.
On the third day, Alvin still missing and teachers starting to ask questions, Terry decided he would go by Alvin’s house after class let out.
The bell rang, and Terry stayed seated, nervous and sweating. He did not want to go. More than anything in the world, he wanted to walk out the door at the back of the school and head home, to the left, where it was safe and forgiving. He remembered his father saying once, courage is doing the right thing even when you can’t bear it. That settled the issue. He got up and headed out the door to the right, toward Alvin’s place.
It was hot outside, the kind of heat that only existed in Texas in October, still sweltering, but accompanied by a chill wind so as to confuse exposed skin. The result should have been pleasant, but Terry just felt sticky and uncomfortable. The clouds above him were dark and low, and the moisture in the air that still lingered from the morning rain made everything seem close, claustrophobic.
The walk had always been long, but in happier days it had passed quicker. Pleasant times, it seems, are always fleeting, while discomfort and unease can stretch a day into a lifetime. Terry felt as if he had always been on this road.
He imagined what he would say to Alvin when he saw him. He would say he was sorry, that the whole thing was his fault, that he shouldn’t have looked in the first place. Alvin would say “Whatever,” and probably call him a name. Then they’d get a coke from the fridge and watch some TV.
Terry turned the final corner and Alvin’s house came into view. It was dark because the windows were shut and the lights were off, but Terry thought he could see something else, a darkness that seemed to hover over this house alone, apart from its neighbors. He stopped at the curb, took a deep breath and started up the walk to the porch. When he reached to door, he stood there breathing loudly, heart pounding, beads of sweat forming and falling on his face. Then, he knocked.
Not a single sound issued from the dark behind the door. Terry knocked again. This time, the door opened.
Terry had not heard footsteps approach, had perceived no voices, but he saw Alvin standing, draped in shadow just beyond the triangle of light that cut in from the doorway. More accurately, he saw his eyes. Those were unmistakable, sharp and deeply blue. The eyes turned from him and the vague shadowy form that held them receded soundlessly into the house.
“Alvin,” Terry said, whispering though he couldn’t say why. He stepped over the threshold, purposely leaving the door open. The house was still, not even the hum of an air conditioner breaking the silence that rang in Terry’s ears like the aftermath of a deafening blast, and it was hot. Beads of sweat were already forming on Terry’s forehead, and the air felt thick in his lungs. He allowed his eyes to adjust.
Everything seemed to be in place. The blinds were closed and it was surprisingly dark. Even the digital clock on the VCR that had blinked constantly since they were in elementary school refused to cast its light as though it had been unplugged.
Terry gathered a little more courage. “Alvin?” He asked aloud to the blackness. Again there was no answer, no sound.
He headed deeper into the house, now convinced that Alvin was angry, but not so much that he didn’t want an audience for his sulking. His footsteps, deafening in the quiet, thumped purposefully toward the back of the house, toward Alvin’s room where he was sure he would find his friend, probably smoking a cigarette and looking at him balefully.
As he advanced, the temperature seemed to drop, and by the time he reached Alvin’s door it felt like he should be able to see his breath in front of him, were it not for the thick blackness before his eyes. He was shaking, only partially from the temperature. He felt for and found the door frame, and from there deduced the position of the knob. He wrapped his fingers around it and recoiled. It was like ice. He grabbed it again and turned quickly. It swung open.
Alvin’s room was not as dark as the rest of the house. The sun outside shone directly on the back wall, and as such was more intense on the blinds, overwhelming them to show through in thin, dim stripes. Alvin was not there, but otherwise the room was just as he had left it three nights ago, a mess, but a controlled one. Terry noticed the art portfolio spread open on the bed, the magazines strewn about. Two of them had fallen to the floor.
There was also the matter of the black splotch that spread over the top of Alvin’s previously white (well, white-ish) quilt. Terry couldn’t make it out in the low light, but it gave him a chill. He suddenly wanted to leave. He had been a fool to come.
They were quick and advancing on his position. Terry turned and frantically looked around for a place to hide, finding none. A shape stepped in front of the doorway, came through it, paused, shirtless, with a smile that was much too wide, as though it had been carved to shape. Mr K looked at Terry wide-eyed. Terry thought he saw something shiny glint in his right hand.
“Hey, Timmy,” said Mr K. “I hoped you would drop by.”