motes of dust/cold and metal

 

I WAS twelve when my daddy put a suitcase by the door.

“What’s that for?” I asked from the kitchen.

He sighed, low and rough. Took him a moment to turn around. “When did you get home?”

“A while ago.” My skin itched. Didn’t feel right.

He glanced at an old clock on the wall. The plastic covering its face was cracked. “Later than I thought. Look, Ox….” He shook his head. He seemed flustered. Confused. My dad was many things. A drunk. Quick to anger with words and fists. A sweet devil with a laugh that rumbled like that old Harley-Davidson WLA we’d rebuilt the summer before. But he was never flustered. He was never confused. Not like he was now.

I itched something awful.

“I know you’re not the smartest boy,” he said. He glanced back at his suitcase.

And it was true. I was not cursed with an overabundance of brains. My mom said I was just fine. My daddy thought I was slow. My mom said it wasn’t a race. He was deep in his whiskey at that point and started yelling and breaking things. He didn’t hit her. Not that night, anyway. Mom cried a lot, but he didn’t hit her. I made sure of it. When he finally started snoring in his old chair, I snuck back to my room and hid under my covers.

“Yes, sir,” I said to him.

He looked back at me, and I’ll swear until the day I die that I saw some kind of love in his eyes. “Dumb as an ox,” he said. It didn’t sound mean coming from him. It just was.

I shrugged. Wasn’t the first time he’d said that to me, even though Mom asked him to stop. It was okay. He was my dad. He knew better than anyone.

“You’re gonna get shit,” he said. “For most of your life.”

“I’m bigger than most,” I said like it meant something. And I was. People were scared of me, though I didn’t want them to be. I was big. Like my daddy. He was a big man with a sloping gut, thanks to the booze.

“People won’t understand you,” he said.

“Oh.”

“They won’t get you.”

“I don’t need them to.” I wanted them to very much, but I could see why they wouldn’t.

“I have to go.”

“Where?”

“Away. Look—”

“Does Mom know?”

He laughed, but it didn’t sound like he found anything funny. “Sure. Maybe. She knew what was going to happen. Probably has for a while.”

I stepped toward him. “When are you coming back?”

“Ox. People are going to be mean. You just ignore them. Keep your head down.”

“People aren’t mean. Not always.” I didn’t know that many people. Didn’t really have any friends. But the people I did know weren’t mean. Not always. They just didn’t know what to do with me. Most of them. But that was okay. I didn’t know what to do with me either.

And then he said, “You’re not going to see me for a while. Maybe a long while.”

“What about the shop?” I asked him. He worked down at Gordo’s. He smelled like grease and oil and metal when he came home. Fingers blackened. He had shirts with his name embroidered on them. Curtis stitched in reds and whites and blues. I always thought that was the most amazing thing. A mark of a great man, to have your name etched onto your shirt. He let me go with him sometimes. He showed me how to change the oil when I was three. How to change a tire when I was four. How to rebuild an engine for a 1957 Chevy Bel Air Coupe when I was nine. Those days I would come home smelling of grease and oil and metal and I would dream late at night of having a shirt with my name embroidered on it. Oxnard, it would say. Or maybe just Ox.

“Gordo doesn’t care” is what my dad said.

Which felt like a lie. Gordo cared a lot. He was gruff, but he told me once that when I was old enough, I could come talk to him about a job. “Guys like us have to stick together,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant by that, but the fact that he thought of me as anything was good enough for me.

“Oh” is all I could say to my dad.

“I don’t regret you,” he said. “But I regret everything else.”

I didn’t understand. “Is this about…?” I didn’t know what this was about.

“I regret being here,” he said. “I can’t take it.”

“Well that’s okay,” I said. “We can fix that.” We could just go somewhere else.

“There’s no fixing, Ox.”

“Did you charge your phone?” I asked him because he never remembered. “Don’t forget to charge your phone so I can call you. I got new math that I don’t understand. Mr. Howse said I could ask you for help.” Even though I knew my dad wouldn’t get the math problems any more than I would. Pre-algebra it was called. That scared me, because it was already hard when it was a pre. What would happen when it was just algebra without the pre involved?

I knew that face he made then. It was his angry face. He was pissed off. “Don’t you fucking get it?” he snapped.

I tried not to flinch. “No,” I said. Because I didn’t.

“Ox,” my daddy said. “There’s going to be no math. No phone calls. Don’t make me regret you too.”

“Oh,” I said.

“You have to be a man now. That’s why I’m trying to teach you this stuff. Shit’s gonna get slung on you. You brush it off and keep going.” His fists were clenched at his sides. I didn’t know why.

“I can be a man,” I assured him, because maybe that would make him feel better.

“I know,” he said.

I smiled at him, but he looked away.

“I have to go,” he eventually said.

“When are you coming back?” I asked him.

He staggered a step toward the door. Took a breath that rattled around his chest. Picked up his suitcase. Walked out. I heard his old truck start up outside. It stuttered a bit when it picked up. Sounded like he needed a new timing belt. I’d have to remind him later.

 

 

MOM GOT home late that night, after working a double in the diner. She found me in the kitchen, standing in the same spot I’d been in when my daddy had walked out the door. Things were different now.

“Ox?” she asked. “What’s going on?” She looked very tired.

“Hey, Mom,” I said.

“Why are you crying?”

“I’m not.” And I wasn’t, because I was a man now.

She touched my face. Her hands smelled like salt and french fries and coffee. Her thumbs brushed against my wet cheeks. “What happened?”

I looked down at her, because she’d always been small and at some point in the last year or so, I’d grown right past her. I wished I could remember the day it happened. It seemed monumental. “I’ll take care of you,” I promised her. “You don’t ever need to worry.”

Her eyes softened. I could see the lines around her eyes. The tired set of her jaw. “You always do. But that’s—” She stopped. Took a breath. “He left?” she asked, and she sounded so small.

“I think so.” I twirled her hair against my finger. Dark, like my own. Like my daddy’s. We were all so dark.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“I’m a man now,” I told her. That’s all she needed to hear.

She laughed until she cracked right down the middle.

 

 

HE DIDN’T take the money when he left. Not all of it. Not that there was much there to begin with.

He didn’t take any pictures either. Just some clothes. His razor. His truck. Some of his tools.

If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought he never was at all.

 

 

I CALLED his phone four days later. It was the middle of the night.

It rang a couple of times before a message picked up saying the phone was no longer in service.

I had to apologize to Mom the next morning. I’d held the handset so hard that it had cracked. She said it was okay, and we didn’t talk about it ever again.

 

 

I WAS six when my daddy bought me my own set of tools. Not kid’s stuff. No bright colors and plastic. All cold and metal and real.

He said, “Keep them clean. And god help you if I find them laying outside. They’ll rust and I’ll tan your hide. That ain’t what this shit is for. You got that?”

I touched them reverently because they were a gift. “Okay,” I said, unable to find the words to say just how full my heart felt.

 

 

I STOOD in their (her) room one morning a couple of weeks after he left. Mom was at the diner again, picking up another shift. Her ankles would be hurting by the time she got home.

Sunlight fell through a window on the far wall. Little bits of dust caught the light.

It smelled like him in the room. Like her. Like both of them. A thing together. It would be a long time before it stopped. But it would. Eventually.

I slid open the closet door. One side was mostly empty. Things were left, though. Little pieces of a life no longer lived.

Like his work shirt. Four of them, hanging in the back. Gordo’s in cursive.

Curtis, they all said. Curtis, Curtis, Curtis.

I touched each one of them with the tips of my fingers.

I took the last one down from the hanger. Slid it over my shoulders. It was heavy and smelled like man and sweat and work. I said, “Okay, Ox. You can do this.”

So I started to button up the work shirt. My fingers stumbled over them, too big and blunt. Clumsy and foolish, I was. All hands and arms and legs, graceless and dull. I was too big for myself.

The last button finally went through and I closed my eyes. I took a breath. I remembered how Mom had looked this morning. The purple lines under her eyes. The slump of her shoulders. She’d said, “Be good today, Ox. Try to stay out of trouble,” as if trouble was the only thing I knew. As if I was in it constantly.

I opened my eyes. Looked in the mirror that hung on the closet door.

The shirt was too large. Or I was too small. I don’t know which. I looked like a kid playing dress-up. Like I was pretending.

I scowled at my reflection. Lowered my voice and said, “I’m a man.”

I didn’t believe me.

“I’m a man.”

I winced.

“I’m a man.”

Eventually, I took off my father’s work shirt and hung it back up in the closet. I shut the doors behind me, the dust motes still floating in the fading sun.

 


 

catalytic converter/dreaming while awake

 

“GORDO’S.”

“Hey, Gordo.”

A growl. “Yeah? Who’s this?” Like he didn’t know.

“Ox.”

“Oxnard Matheson! I was just thinking about you.”

“Really?”

“No. What the fuck do you want?”

I grinned because I knew. The smile felt strange on my face. “It’s good to hear you too.”

“Yeah, yeah. Haven’t seen you, kiddo.” He was pissed at my absence.

“I know. I had to….” I didn’t know what I had to do.

“How long has it been since the sperm donor fucked off?”

“A couple of months, I guess.” Fifty-seven days. Ten hours. Forty-two minutes.

“Fuck him. You know that, right?”

I did, but he was still my daddy. So maybe I didn’t. “Sure,” I said.

“Your ma doing okay?”

“Yeah.” No. I didn’t think she was.

“Ox.”

“No. I don’t know.”

He inhaled deeply and sighed.

“Smoke break?” I asked him, and it hurt, because that was familiar. I could almost smell the smoke. It burned my lungs. I could see him if I thought about it enough, sitting out behind the shop. Smoking and scowling. Long legs stretched out, ankles crossed. Oil under his fingernails. Those bright and colorful tattoos covering his arms. Ravens and flowers and shapes meant to have meaning that I could never figure out.

“Yeah. Death sticks, man.”

“You could quit.”

“I don’t quit anything, Ox.”

“Old dogs learn new tricks.”

He snorted. “I’m twenty-four.”

“Old.”

“Ox.” He knew.

So I told him. “We’re not doing okay.”

“Bank?” he asked.

“She doesn’t think I see them. The letters.”

“How far behind?”

“I don’t know.” I was embarrassed. I shouldn’t have called. “I gotta go.”

“Ox,” he snapped. Crisp and clear. “How far?”

“Seven months.”

“That fucking bastard,” he said. He was angry.

“He didn’t—”

“Don’t, Ox. Just… don’t.”

“I was thinking.”

“Oh boy.”

“Could I…?” My tongue felt heavy.

“Spit it out.”

“Could I have a job?” I said in a rush. “It’s just we need the money and I can’t let her lose the house. It’s all we have left. I’d do good, Gordo. I would do good work and I’d work for you forever. It was going to happen anyway and can we just do it now? Can we just do it now? I’m sorry. I just need to do it now because I have to be the man now.” My throat hurt. I wished I had something to drink, but I couldn’t get my legs to move.

Gordo didn’t say anything at first. Then, “I think that might be the most I’ve ever heard you talk at one time.”

“I don’t say much.” Obviously.

“That right.” He sounded amused. “Here’s what we’re gonna do.”

 

 

HE GAVE my mom the money to get the mortgage caught back up. Said it would come out of the pay he’d give me under the table until I could legally work for him.

Mom cried. She said no, but then she realized she couldn’t say no. So she cried and said yes and Gordo made her promise to tell him if it got bad again. I think she thought he hung the moon and might have tried to smile a little wider at him. Might have laughed lightly. Might have cocked her hips a bit.

She didn’t know that I’d seen him once with another guy when I was six or so, holding his elbow lightly as they walked into the movies. Gordo had been laughing deeply and had stars in his eyes. I didn’t think he’d be interested in my mom. I never saw the man with Gordo ever again. And I never saw Gordo with anyone else. I wanted to ask him, but there was a tightness around his eyes that didn’t used to be there before and so I never did. People don’t like to be reminded of sad things.

The threatening letters and phone calls stopped coming from the bank.

It only took six months to pay back Gordo. Or so he said. I didn’t understand how money worked all that well, but it seemed like it should have taken longer than that. Gordo called us square and that was that.

I never really saw much of the money after that. Gordo told me he’d opened an account for me at the bank where it would accrue interest. I didn’t know what accrue interest meant, but I trusted Gordo. “For a rainy day,” he said.

I didn’t like it when it rained.

 

 

I HAD a friend, once. His name was Jeremy and he wore glasses and smiled nervously at many things. We were nine years old. He liked comic books and drawing, and one day, he gave me a picture he’d done of me as a superhero. It had a cape and everything. I thought it was the neatest thing I’d ever seen. Then Jeremy moved away to Florida, and when my mom and I looked up Florida on the map, it was on the other side of the country from where we lived in Oregon.

“People don’t stay in Green Creek,” she told me as my fingers touched roads on the map. “There’s nothing here.”

“We stayed,” I said.

She looked away.

 

 

SHE WAS wrong. People did stay. Not a lot of them, but they did. She did. I did. Gordo did. People I went to school with, though they might leave eventually. Green Creek was dying, but it wasn’t dead. We had a grocery store. The diner where she worked. A McDonald’s. A one-screen movie theater that showed movies that came out in the seventies. A liquor store with bars on the windows. A wig store with mannequin heads in the windows, draped with red and black and yellow hair. Gordo’s. A gas station. Two traffic lights. One school for all grades. All in the middle of the woods in the middle of the Cascade Mountains.

I didn’t understand why people wanted to leave. To me, it was home.

 

 

WE LIVED back off in the trees near the end of a dirt road. The house was blue. The trim was white. The paint peeled, but that didn’t matter. In the summer, it smelled like grass and lilacs and thyme and pinecones. In the fall, the leaves crunched under my feet. In the winter, the smoke would rise from the chimney, mixing with the snow. In the spring, the birds would call out in the trees, and at night, an owl would ask who, who, who until the very early morning.

There was a house down the road from us at the end of the lane that I could see through the trees. My mom said it was empty, but sometimes there was a car or a truck parked out in front and lights on inside at night. It was a big house with many windows. I tried looking inside them, but they were always covered. Sometimes it would be months before I’d see another car outside.

“Who lived there?” I asked my dad when I was ten.

He grunted and opened another beer.

“Who lived there?” I asked my mom when she got home from work.

“I don’t know,” she said, touching my ear. “It was empty when we got here.”

I never asked anyone else. I told myself it was because mystery was better than reality.

 

 

I NEVER asked why we moved to Green Creek when I was three. I never asked if I had grandparents or cousins. It was always just the three of us until it was just the two of us.

 

 

“DO YOU think he’ll come back?” I asked Gordo when I was fourteen.

“Damn fucking computers,” Gordo muttered under his breath, pushing another button on the Nexiq that was attached to the car. “Everything has to be done with computers.” He pressed another button and the machine beeped angrily at him. “Can’t just go in and figure it out myself. No. Have to use diagnostic codes because everything is automated. Grandpap could just listen to the idle of the car and tell you what was wrong.”

I took the Nexiq from his hands and tapped to the right screen. I pulled the code and handed it back to him. “Catalytic converter.”

“I knew that,” he said with a scowl.

“That’s going to cost a lot.”

“I know.”

“Mr. Fordham can’t afford it.”

“I know.”

“You’re not going to charge him full price, are you.” Because that was the kind of person Gordo was. He took care of others, even if he didn’t want anyone to know.

He said, “No, Ox. He’s not coming back. Get this up on the lift, okay?”

 

 

MOM SAT at the kitchen table, a bunch of papers spread out around her. She looked sad.

I was nervous. “More bank stuff?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No.”

“Well?”

“Ox. It’s….” She picked up her pen and started to sign her name. She stopped before she finished the first letter. Put the pen back down. She looked up at me. “I’ll do right by you.”

“I know.” Because I did.

She picked up the pen and signed her name. And then again. And again. And again.

She initialed a few times too.

When she was done, she said, “And that’s that.” She laughed and stood and took my hand and we danced in the kitchen to a song neither of us could hear. She left after a little while.

It was dark by the time I looked down at the papers on the table.

They were for a divorce.

 

 

SHE WENT back to her maiden name. Callaway.

She asked if I wanted to change mine too.

I told her no. I would make Matheson a good name.

She didn’t think I saw her tears when I said that. But I did.

 

 

I SAT in the cafeteria. It was loud. I couldn’t concentrate. My head hurt.

A guy named Clint walked by my table with his friends.

I was by myself.

He said, “Fucking retard.”

His friends laughed.

I got up and saw the look of fear in his eyes. I was bigger than him.

I turned and left, because my mom said I couldn’t get in fights anymore.

Clint said something behind me and his friends laughed again.

I told myself that when I got friends, we wouldn’t be mean like they were.

No one bothered me when I sat outside. It was almost nice. My sandwich was good.

 

 

SOMETIMES I walked in the woods. Things were clearer there.

The trees swayed in the breeze. Birds told me stories.

They didn’t judge me.

One day, I picked up a stick and pretended it was a sword.

I hopped over a creek, but it was too wide and my feet got wet.

I lay on my back and looked at the sky through the trees while waiting for my socks to dry.

I dug my toes into the dirt.

A dragonfly landed on a rock near my head. It was green and blue. Its wings had blue veins. Its eyes were shiny and black. It flew away, and I wondered how long it would live.

Something moved off to my right. I looked over and heard a growl. I thought I should run, but I couldn’t make my feet work. Or my hands. I didn’t want to leave my socks behind.

So instead, I said, “Hello.”

There was no response, but I knew something was there.

“I’m Ox. It’s okay.”

A huff of air. Like a sigh.

I told it that I liked the woods.

There was a flash of black, but then it was gone.

When I got home, I had leaves in my hair and there was a car parked in front of the empty house at the end of the lane.

It was gone the next day.

 

 

THAT WINTER, I left school and went to the diner. I was on break for Christmas. Three weeks of nothing but the shop ahead, and I was happy.

It started snowing again by the time I opened the door to Oasis. The bell rang out overhead. An inflatable palm tree was near the door. A papier-mâché sun hung from the ceiling. Four people sat at the counter drinking coffee. It smelled like grease. I loved it.

A waitress named Jenny snapped her gum and smiled at me. She was two grades above me. Sometimes, she smiled at me at school too. “Hey, Ox,” she said.

“Hi.”

“Cold out?”

I shrugged.

“Your nose is red,” she said.

“Oh.”

She laughed. “You hungry?”

“Yeah.”

“Sit down. I’ll get you some coffee and tell your mom you’re here.”

I did, at my booth near the back. It wasn’t really my booth, but everyone knew it was.

“Maggie!” Jenny said back into the kitchen. “Ox is here.” She winked at me as she took a plate of eggs and toast to Mr. Marsh, who flirted with a sly smile, even though he was eighty-four. Jenny giggled at him, and he ate his eggs. He put ketchup on them. I thought that was odd.

“Hey,” Mom said, putting coffee down in front of me.

“Hi.”

She ran her fingers through my hair, brushing off flecks of snow. They melted on my shoulders. “Tests go okay?”

“Think so.”

“We study enough?”

“Maybe. I forgot who Stonewall Jackson was, though.”

She sighed. “Ox.”

“It’s okay,” I told her. “I got the rest.”

“You promise?”

“Yes.”

And she believed me because I didn’t lie. “Hungry?”

“Yeah. Can I have—”

The bell rang overhead. And a man walked in. He seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t think of where I’d seen him before. He was Gordo’s age and strong. And big. He had a full, light-colored beard. He brushed a hand over his shaved head. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He let it out slowly. He opened his eyes and I swear they flashed. But all I saw was blue again.

“Give me a second, Ox,” Mom said. She went to talk to the man and I did my best to look away. He was a stranger, yes, but there was something else. I thought on it as I took a sip from my coffee.

He sat at the booth next to mine. We faced each other. He smiled briefly at me. It was a nice smile, bright and toothy. Mom handed him a menu and told him she’d be back. I could already see Jenny peeking out from the kitchen, watching the man. She pushed her boobs up, ran her fingers through her hair, and grabbed the coffeepot. “I got this one,” she muttered. Mom rolled her eyes.

She was charming. The man smiled at her politely. She touched his hand, just a slight scrape of her fingernails. He ordered soup. She laughed. He asked for cream and sugar for his coffee. She said her name was Jenny. He said he would like another napkin. She left the table looking slightly disappointed.

“Meal and a show,” I muttered. The man grinned at me like he’d heard.

“Figure out what you want, kiddo?” Mom asked as she came back to the table.

“Burger.”

“You got it, handsome.”

I smiled because I adored her.

The man looked at my mom as she walked away. His nostrils flared. Looked back at me. Cocked his head. Nostrils flared again. Like he was… sniffing? Smelling?

I copied him and sniffed the air. It smelled the same to me. Like it always did.

The man laughed and shook his head. “It’s nothing bad,” he said. His voice was deep and kind. Those teeth flashed again.

“That’s good,” I said.

“I’m Mark.”

“Ox.”

An eyebrow went up. “That so?”

“Oxnard.” I shrugged. “Everyone calls me Ox.”

“Ox,” he said. “Strong name.”

“Strong like an ox?” I suggested.

He laughed. “Heard that a lot?”

“I guess.”

He looked out the window. “I like it here.” So much more was said in those words, but I couldn’t even come close to grasping any of it.

“Me too. Mom said people don’t stay here.”

He said, “You’re here,” and it felt profound.

“I am.”

“That your mom?” He nodded toward the kitchen.

“Yeah.”

“She’s here, then. Maybe they don’t always stay here, but some do.” He looked down at his hands. “And maybe they can come back.”

“Like going home?” I asked.

That smile came back. “Yes, Ox. Like going home. That’s… it smells like that here. Home.”

“I smell bacon,” I said sheepishly.

Mark laughed. “I know you do. There’s a house. In the woods. Down off McCarthy. It’s empty now.”

“I know that house! I live right near it.”

He nodded. “I thought you might. It explains why you sme—”

Jenny came back. Brought him his soup. He was polite again, nothing more. Not like he’d been with me.

I opened my mouth to ask him something (anything) when my mom came back out. “Let him eat,” she scolded me as she placed the plate in front of me. “It’s not nice to interrupt someone’s dinner.”

“But I—”

“He’s okay,” Mark said. “I was the one being intrusive.”

Mom looked wary. “If you say so.”

Mark nodded and ate his soup.

“You stay here until I’m off,” Mom told me. “I don’t want you walking home in this. It’s only until six. Maybe we can watch a movie when we get home?”

“Okay. I promised Gordo I’d be at the shop early tomorrow.”

“No rest for us, huh?” She kissed my forehead and left me to it.

I wanted to ask Mark more questions, but I remembered my manners. I ate my burger instead. It was slightly charred, just the way I liked it.

“Gordo?” Mark asked. It was almost a question, but also like he was trying out the name on his tongue. His smile was sad now.

“My boss. He owns the body shop.”

“That right,” Mark said. “Who would have thought?”

“Thought what?”

“Make sure you hold on to her,” Mark said instead. “Your mom.”

I looked up at him. He seemed sad. “It’s just us two,” I told him quietly, as if it were some great secret.

“Even more reason. Things will change, though. I think. For you and her. For all of us.” He wiped his mouth and pulled out his wallet, pulling a folded bill out and leaving it on the table. He stood and pulled his coat back over his shoulders. Before he left, he looked down at me. “We’ll see you soon, Ox.”

“Who?”

“My family.”

“The house?”

He nodded. “I think it’s almost time to come home.”

“Can we—” I stopped myself because I was just a kid.

“What, Ox?” He looked curious.

“Can we be friends when you come home? I don’t have many of those.” I didn’t have any except for Gordo and my mom, but I didn’t want to scare him away.

His hand tightened into a fist at his side. “Not many?” he asked.

“I speak too slow,” I said, looking down at my hands. “Or I don’t speak at all. People don’t like that.” Or me, but I had already said too much.

“There’s nothing wrong with the way you speak.”

“Maybe.” If enough people said it, it had to be partially true.

“Ox, I’m going to tell you a secret. Okay?”

“Sure.” I was excited because friends shared secrets so maybe that meant we were friends.

“It’s always the ones who are the quietest who often have the greatest things to say. And yes, I think we’ll be friends.”

He left then.

I didn’t see my friend again for seventeen months.

 

 

THAT NIGHT as I lay in bed waiting for sleep, I heard a howl from deep in the woods. It rose like a song until I was sure it was all I could ever want to sing. It went on and on and all I could think of was home, home, home. Eventually, it fell away and so did I.

I told myself later it was just a dream.

 

 

“HERE,” GORDO said on my fifteenth birthday. He shoved a badly wrapped package into my hands. It had snowmen on it. Other guys from the shop were there. Rico. Tanner. Chris. All young and wide-eyed and alive. Friends of Gordo’s who’d grown up with him in Green Creek. They were all grinning at me, waiting. Like they knew some big secret that I didn’t.

“It’s May,” I said.

Gordo rolled his eyes. “Open the damn thing.” He leaned back in his ratty chair behind the shop and took a deep drag on his cigarette. His tattoos looked brighter than they normally were. I wondered if he’d gotten them touched up recently.

I tore through the paper. It was loud. I wanted to savor it because I didn’t get presents often, but I couldn’t wait. It only took seconds, but it felt like forever.

“This,” I said when I saw what it was. “This is….”

It was reverence. It was grace. It was beauty. I wondered if this meant I could finally breathe. Like I had found my place in this world I didn’t understand.

Embroidered. Red. White. Blue. Two letters, stitched perfectly.

Ox, the work shirt read.

Like I mattered. Like I meant something. Like I was important.

Men don’t cry. My daddy taught me that. Men don’t cry because they don’t have time to cry.

I must not have been a man yet because I cried. I bowed my head and cried.

Rico touched my shoulder.

Tanner rubbed a hand over my head.

Chris touched his work boot to mine.

They stood around me. Over me. Hiding me away should anyone stumble in and see the tears.

And Gordo put his forehead to mine and said, “You belong to us now.”

Something bloomed within me and I was warm. It was like the sun had burst in my chest and I felt more alive than I had in a long time.

Later, they helped me put on the shirt. It fit perfectly.

 

 

I TOOK a smoke break with Gordo that winter. “Can I have one?”

He shrugged. “Don’t tell your ma.” He opened the box and pulled a cigarette out for me. He held up the lighter and covered the flame against the wind. I took the cig between my lips and put it toward the fire. I inhaled. It burned. I coughed. My eyes watered and gray smoke came out my nose and mouth.

The second drag was easier.

The guys laughed. I thought maybe we were friends.

 

 

SOMETIMES I thought I was dreaming but then realized I was actually awake.

It was getting harder to wake up.

 

 

GORDO MADE me quit smoking four months later. He told me it was for my own good.

I told him it was because he didn’t want me stealing his cigarettes anymore.

He cuffed the back of my head and told me to get to work.

I didn’t smoke after that.

We were all still friends.

 

 

I ASKED him once about his tattoos.

The shapes. The patterns. Like there was a design. All bright colors and strange symbols that I thought should be familiar. Like it was on the tip of my tongue. I knew they went all the way up his arms. I didn’t know how far they went beyond that.

He said, “Everyone has a past, Ox.”

“Are they yours?”

He looked away. “Something like that.”

I wondered if I would ever etch my past onto my skin in swirls and colors and shapes.

 

 

TWO THINGS happened on my sixteenth birthday.

I was officially hired at Gordo’s. Had a business card and everything. Filled out tax forms that Gordo helped me with because I didn’t understand them. I didn’t cry that time. The guys patted me on the back and joked about how they no longer worked in a sweatshop with child labor. Gordo gave me a set of keys to the shop and smeared some grease on my face. I just grinned at him. I didn’t think I’d ever seen him so happy.

I went home that afternoon and told myself I was a man now.

Then the second thing happened.

The empty house at the end of the lane was no longer empty and there was a boy on the dirt road in the woods.