I was coming out of Harold Green’s convenience store on Brown and First and Marty was going in.
The year was 1956, I was eleven years old, I knew everything about everybody in Langston, South Dakota, and fancied myself an amateur detective. I’d recently given the police a description of a mail thief, and another time led an animal control officer to a rabid bat circling above the lampposts in my neighborhood. The bat spun like a bird to the ground when they shot it, swooping one last time before hitting dirt. “We gotta bust open dem brains, Billy,” Mr. Winkle, the animal control officer, told me. “We gotta bust open dem brains and see what we see.”
Two thousand people lived in Langston, now two thousand and one.
“Kid,” the stranger said, grabbing my shoulder. I looked up into black-lashed green eyes. A sweet smell— cinnamon gum and cigarettes, I’d later realize—reached my nose. “You got a quarter?”
“Sorry,” I said, pushing hands into pockets. “I spent my last dollar.”
“Jesus Christ,” he said, and swiveled up to the store counter to talk to the owner, Mr. Green.
Outside, I crouched in the thimbleweeds on the side of the building and tried to remember everything about him: his face, his smell, the tenor of his voice. I rocked on my haunches, opened a bottle of Coca-Cola. The sun pressed down on me, and little black gnats stuck to my lips. The bubbly soda pop burned all the way down my throat, into my stomach.
He stepped onto the sidewalk, pack of cigarettes in hand. Tall and thin with jet-black hair styled into a high pompadour, wearing a white T-shirt and slim black pants and shiny dark shoes. The sleeves of his shirt rolled neatly to reveal his biceps, like he’d taken time to fold them. Leading with his hips, shoulders back, feet splayed. Langston men like my Uncle Don wore plaid work shirts with cans of chew in the front pocket, paired with baggy slacks or Wrangler jeans, and combed thinning, yellow-gray hair neatly into a side part. They walked with shoulders in, shoes together, like they didn’t want anybody to notice them.
I waited until the stranger was a few feet away and then hopped out from behind the thimbleweeds. I quickened my pace and fell in step with him on the sidewalk.
“Find a quarter?” I asked, smoothing the front of my shirt.
He ran a hand through his hair, looked at me from the corner of his eye. He kept walking and didn’t miss a step. “Old Harold gave me a loan.”
“Gee,” I said. “He turns me away if I’m a cent short. He musta liked you.”
“Or, he was scared of me.”
Mr. Green was about two hundred pounds and had a silver gun tucked behind his cash register, which he used to threaten shoplifters.
“Mr. Green isn’t scared of anybody,” I said.
“You’d be surprised.” The stranger paused. “The effect I have on people.” He turned his head and smiled: straight white teeth like pickets on a fence. The smile gave me confidence to ask more questions.
“May I have your name?”
Uncle Don said I spoke too frankly with adults, but I found it easiest to talk to people who were older than me. Children my own age threw their arms into the air when happy, screamed when angry, hit each other with closed fists when playing. And they looked at me funny when I opened my mouth, like my voice was weird.
A few moments of silence. “Marty.”
I’d never met an adult who let me call him by his first name. “I’m Billy.”
“Like Billy the Kid?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “I’m Billy, and I’m a kid, so…”
“The outlaw,” he interrupted. “From the Old West. He killed a bunch of people.” He stopped to light a cigarette. “I read a book about him.”
Sunshine made honeycombs of light on the sidewalk. He threw the match and we started walking again.
“What grade you in?”
“Sixth,” I said. “When summer’s over.” I liked saying the word “summer,” and the fact that summer was like Christmas on the horizon.
“Mr. Reynolds, my sixth grade teacher?” He laughed, as if about to tell a joke. “He ran around with a ruler, whacking boys on the back of the neck if they showed gumption. WHACK! I can still feel it, Bill. But at least he noticed me.”
“Your other teachers ignored you?” I asked. I felt the same: no matter if I answered the questions correctly, teachers looked past me, behind me, toward other students.
“You could say that,” Marty said. “I was different.”
“Can’t you tell?”
I stared up at him, blinked. “I mean, the way you dress…” I trailed off.
“The way I dress!” He grinned. “How about the way I talk and walk? The way I laugh, dance, and smile?”
“You talk and walk fine,” I said. In fact, I liked the way he talked and walked. I liked it better than any talk and walk I’d ever seen.
“Maybe you should tell the rest of the world,” he said. “You can be my spokesman.”
“Okay.” I laughed. “I could.”
He stopped in front of Miss Macdonald’s house. I’d been so caught up in our conversation, I hadn’t paid attention to where we were going.
“You’re staying here?” I blurted.
“Judy’s my sister,” he said. “Just got out of the army and I’m going to hang in Langston and, you know, settle down.” He said “settle down” like it was the same as “shoveling manure.”
I’d watched Miss Macdonald putting gladiolas into planters, making lace curtains, baking pies when I’d spied her through the window on the side of her house. Sometimes, Uncle Don and I ran into her at the grocery, and she praised me for being a good boy.
“Miss Macdonald likes me,” I said. “Maybe she’ll have me for dinner sometime. You could ask?”
“I could,” Marty said, flicking his cigarette onto the sidewalk. “If you want. I been here a couple days and we haven’t had company.” He grinned, a funny, teasing grin, and there was a sensation like fluttering moths in my throat. Like I’d swallowed a load of moths and they were trying to escape. “I’ve got to roll. See you later?”
“Sooner than later,” I said.
As I walked home, I felt it—little wings against my lungs. This case wasn’t simple like the mail thief or rabid bat. I had dozens of questions: where was Marty born? Where had he worked? How old was he? Why did he read books about outlaws, and did he have a hard time making friends, like me?
My uncle’s bar, White Pony Lounge, was a mile from the center of town. The small brick house was easy to miss, but Langston residents recognized it by the metal plaque in the window with the shadow outline of a pony rearing up on its back legs. The Lounge had a barroom in front and two bedrooms in back: one for Uncle Don, one for me. Some nights, Uncle Don sat in the barroom hours after closing, staring at the bills and trying to figure them out. I would do dishes and make myself cherry sodas before going into my room and looking out my telescope.
I said hello to Mr. Edmond. He worked as a coal miner in Viking, a town about twenty miles from Langston, and he camped out at White Pony every day after getting off the train.
“Causing trouble?” he asked. His cheeks were mottled under the dim lights and his long red beard looked wet and dirty.
“No!” I said. “I’m never in any trouble, Mr. Edmond!”
“Are you still solving cases?” He reached forward and flicked me under the chin.
“I’m always solving cases,” I said. I couldn’t tell him about Marty yet. Once a case was finished and I had all the information, I told Uncle Don and Mr. Edmond. It was like a jinx, kind of, to talk about it before. The spying, snooping, walking, following—it was my secret life.
I went behind the bar. “There he is!” Uncle Don said. “Mop the bathroom?” he asked through his cigarette.
He was sweeping, and I looked down at his broom: yellow bristles bent and splayed in every direction. Mopping was easy: moving water and soap across the floor until the dirt disappeared.
Uncle Don was refilling the napkin holders when I returned to the bar. “Finished,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Now wash the windows.”
“Windows!” I said. Sometimes, Uncle Don let me serve customers drinks, and the men tipped me with nickels.
Mr. Edmond, who was maybe ten feet away, dragged on his cigarette and pushed his empty mug toward Uncle Don.
“He’s a kid,” he said. “When I was a kid I was out shooting rabbits. Pulling up girls’ dresses. Not washing windows.”
“You also stopped going to school when you were twelve,” Uncle Don said.
“I had fun,” Mr. Edmond said.
“That,” Uncle Don said, “is true. You sure had more fun than me.” He pulled out his leather wallet and peeled a dollar bill from a small wad of cash. “Go wash windows.” He winked. “Don’t pull up girls’ dresses.”
I looked at the bill and it was wrinkled and torn in the corner.
“I don’t even want to,” I said. I didn’t.
I went outside and as I rubbed soap over the windows in a circular motion, the barroom through the glass became darker and darker, heavier and heavier, until it was like a scene inside a snow globe, the kind you shake until snow drips over in white bits, covering the world. If I squinted, Uncle and Mr. Edmond looked like Marty. For a minute I pretended they were both Marty, that there were two Martys inside the bar waiting for me, and it made me happy.
I turned onto Brown the next day, and Marty was coming out of Harold’s.
“You’re clockwork,” he said when he saw me. What he didn’t know: I’d already walked by Miss Macdonald’s house, looking for him.
“So are you, I guess,” I said.
“Where you headed?”
“Wherever you’re headed,” I said. I began to follow him. “So, Mr. Marty, you got many friends?” I figured I’d start checking questions off my list.
“Not many. You?” He looked up at the blue and cloudless sky.
“Me? No.” I paused. “Did you have a best friend? When you were growing up?” I hoped he hadn’t.
“I had a best friend a few years ago.” He shrugged his shoulders, turned his head to look at me.
“Where is he? You still talk to him?”
“I can’t. He died,” Marty said.
We passed white-fenced front yards, marble bird feeders covered in hungry pigeons. Flutters of black and gray feathers on rooftops. High school boys walking across the street, wearing hunting caps.
“Geez,” I said. “How’d he die?”
I’d never known anybody who’d died except old Miss Black on Hedge Way (she slipped on a wet floor) and of course, my parents. They were killed in a car crash when I was a baby.
“Drowning.” He chucked me on the shoulder. The thump of his fist surprised me. “Drowned in Wolf Creek. Landed on the rocks. We were having an adventure.”
Wolf Creek was a hundred miles from Langston, near a town called Salamander. I hadn’t been to the creek but saw it on a map. The name itself—I imagined a wolf with white teeth—interested me.
“I’m sorry,” I began. “I’m sorry he died that way. Did you see it? When he landed in the creek?”
“Won’t it give you nightmares?” I shook my head. He tapped his forehead as he walked, as if deciding how to phrase it. “The blood was everywhere. Looked like ink on the rocks. Nighttime. I think that’s why the blood was black.”
“Golly.” My stomach jumped. “How long had you been friends? Did you have to pull him out of the water? Did he have a funeral? Did the police come?” I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to know every piece.
Marty was silent again. We stopped in front of the Macdonald house. Suddenly, Marty pulled a pair of black sunglasses out of his back pocket and put them on.
“You know what?” he said. “I don’t want to say anymore.”
I experienced a wave of dizziness.
“Was there ink-black blood on the rocks or wasn’t there?”
“There was,” he said.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” I said carefully, “for you to start the story and not finish it.”
“It’s my story, though,” Marty said. His lips parted, like he was going to speak. He took off his sunglasses, cleaned them with his T-shirt, and squinted into the distance. His eyes tipped up at the corners.
He walked backwards up the steps and stood on the porch. The potted plant dangling just above his head on a hook. The perfect shining lawn in front of him.
I experienced immediate regret. I knew I’d gone too far in telling him to finish the story.
“No need to be,” he said.
“But I am,” I said. “My uncle raised me… I know I’m not supposed to talk to you like that.”
“Just forget it,” he said, his hand on the doorknob.
He slipped inside the house, and I stood frozen on the sidewalk. Everything had been perfect. I’d been walking and talking with Marty, and now I was alone. Little green leaves fell down from the trees onto the street.
Panic rose inside me. What if he never mentioned dinner again? What if he’d decided I was a creep, like all the kids back in first grade? I’d waltzed into the classroom, shouted hello, and instantly the other children seemed to shrink into their bodies so I wouldn’t sit near them.
I’d counted on sitting at a table with Marty. It wasn’t so much about the case anymore. I just wanted to be his friend.
That night, I dragged the mop slowly in circles, sort of just moving dirt around. Now that I knew Marty might be mad at me, I felt lonely without him. The feeling was strange; or, my awareness of the feeling was strange, like seeing the face of a person you recognize in a crowd but not being able to place the how or when.
Several days passed. I took a shortcut to Harold’s one morning, cut through alleyways.
I crouched in thimbleweeds. Hours. Marty didn’t stroll by. Maybe I’d invented him.
I left my hiding place and walked to the Macdonald house. I stared up into the open window on the top floor. White curtains flapped on the breeze.
The front door opened and Miss Macdonald appeared. I gathered my senses.
“Admiring your lawn, Miss Macdonald,” I called. I didn’t want her to know I was snooping. “I met your brother the other day, and he said maybe you’d have me over.” I hadn’t known I was going to ask her about dinner, but the words came with urgency and I let them.
Miss Macdonald stopped in front of me on the sidewalk.
“My brother shouldn’t be inviting guests on my behalf, son. Consider it my invitation. Would you like to come over tomorrow evening?”
“Please, Miss Macdonald,” I said.
“Then you shall.”
She nodded politely, pursed her lips. When she was gone, I did what I’d been intending: jumped up the steps, hopped the porch, and went around to the window hidden on the side of the house, the window that faced the kitchen and dining room.
To my surprise, Marty was there, sitting at the dining room table. Green eyes blinking. Shiny hair shining. Thick fingers and wrists. A book in his hands. A blue book cover with gold lettering on the spine. I squinted at the title so hard my head hurt: Eros. A God.
I stood at the window for forty minutes. I wanted to look and look and look. Spying was like tasting chocolate. You put it in your mouth and suck on it and it melts and it’s cold and hot, coats your teeth and tongue, waves of pleasure. And instantly you need more.
As I walked home that night, my mind drifted to a variety of scenarios: Marty greeting me at the door when I arrived for dinner, Marty telling long stories at the dinner table, Marty teaching me something—anything—where he’d have to be close to me, our arms touching. Maybe he’d even guide my hands. I hadn’t been touched in a long time. Not since I could remember.
He wasn’t mad anymore. And if he was, I’d be extra friendly to him until he forgot.
The door opened, and Miss Macdonald was wearing a floor-length cream-colored dress with brass buttons all the way to the top of her neck. She looked like an angel on top of a Christmas tree.
“Come in, Billy!” I tried not to show my disappointment that it was she and not Marty.
Miss Macdonald led me to the sitting room, which was decorated with framed paintings of girls in bustles and feather hats, a golden statue of a lion sitting in the corner, staring at me. The house looked different now that I was inside it.
I sat on a white loveseat, looked down at the end table in front of my knees, and observed a gold Bible. I picked it up and absently thumbed through the whisper-thin pages.
“Dinner is served!” Miss Macdonald called from the kitchen.
I shut the Bible and went into the dining room, stopping at the foot of the table. I was used to eating crackers, peanuts, sandwiches. This was a feast! White china dishes, shining silverware, and tall crystal glasses of iced tea at three place settings. In the center of the table, a tray of French bread and cheese, and an enormous white-footed serving bowl of chicken soup, silver ladle tucked neatly into the center.
But the food was not the best surprise: Marty sat at the head of the long table, wearing an emerald button-up shirt to match his eyes. His hair was not in a pompadour but slicked neatly behind his ears. He looked like a big-time gangster now, or a fancy waiter.
“Hi, Billy,” he said.
It was like I’d been punched in the stomach, but it was a happy kind of pain.
Miss Macdonald directed me to a chair. She served everybody soup, first into my bowl, then Marty’s, then her own. Her bright eyes were wide and watery behind her glasses.
“Why don’t you tell the boy about your background, Marty?” she said as she sat down. “What happened in your life that led you here? It might help him in the long run, to think about his own choices, when he is at a moral crossroads.”
Marty cleared his throat. Sunlight came in through the window, the window I had spied into. He stared beyond us—beyond Miss Macdonald, beyond me, beyond the table. His nose perfectly straight. Lips full. Thick dark eyebrows that framed his face.
“Well,” he said, “I fooled around a lot as a boy, made mistakes. The end.”
My throat tightened. Spoons clanked against bowls.
“What mistakes?” I heard myself ask.
“The kind you don’t repeat,” he said.
“That’s an understatement,” Miss Macdonald muttered.
We finished and Miss Macdonald cleared the table and went into the kitchen, leaving me alone with Marty. He tore a square of bread into little bits and ate the pieces one by one.
“Howdy,” I said, to get his attention.
“Hiya,” he said. Our eyes met.
“Cat got your tongue?” My lips felt funny, like I wanted to smile and frown at once. I was here; I had to talk to him.
“No.” He chewed, swallowed. “My sister’s got my tongue.”
He squinted at me and leaned back in his chair, his legs spread open. My eyes passed over his crotch. I couldn’t help it. Most people—even Mr. Edmond—sat with their legs closed.
“Your uncle runs the bar, right Billy?
“I help him,” I said.
“Good for you. Miss Macdonald said you don’t have parents.” He closed his legs and leaned toward me. “You’re an orphan.”
I shrugged. My eyes burned. Nobody had ever called me an orphan before. The word was dirty. Low. A little kid begging in the streets or something. “I have a mother and father. They happen to be dead.”
“How?” he asked.
I looked down at my hands and spread them out on the table. “A car accident,” I said.
“The reason I ask is because I think you’re special.” He pointed his finger at me. “I think it’s special that your uncle takes care of you. I said that to Miss Macdonald today. You’re not like other boys. You’re sharper. Smarter.”
I sat up in my seat. “You said that? So you aren’t mad at me?”
“Why would I be mad at you?”
“For the other day,” I said.
“I wasn’t mad. I just didn’t want to talk anymore.”
“Same reason you probably don’t want to talk about your parents. Death’s hard to talk about.” He was silent for a moment. I supposed he was right. “Have you heard of the God of Love, Billy?”
I shook my head, though I was pretty sure he meant Eros, the name on the spine of his book.
“He curses people. He’ll make people love each other who aren’t supposed to.” He took out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and a book of matches. “Say, a young man loves an old lady. Or a kid loves another kid.” He paused, lit up. “Or, a man loves a man.”
His words hung in the air. “A man loves a man!” I said. I covered my mouth. Water ran over dishes in the kitchen.
“Sure,” Marty said, lowering his voice. “A donkey loves a dog, a kitty loves a canary, and on and on.”
I blinked. “But there are rules—rules about that stuff. The man and the man, the kitty and the canary, and all that.”
Marty laughed. “Whose rules?”
“Everybody’s,” I said. The more I thought about it, the more outrageous it seemed. “So, the God of Love doesn’t follow rules? Is that what you’re saying?”
Marty shrugged. “Partly. Who would you marry? If you could marry anybody and the rules didn’t matter?
I shrugged. I’d had crushes on girls at school. I liked their blonde hair, but that was the extent of it. “Nobody,” I said. When I thought of my future self, I imagined a detective. Not a husband.
“Nobody? That’s a sad word.”
He patted my arm, stood, shoved his chair out from the table, and put his cigarettes back in his pocket, as though about to leave. My skin burned where he touched me and I wanted him to do it again.
“I just can’t think of anybody,” I said. “Who would you marry?”
Miss Macdonald walked into the dining room behind him, carrying a pink cake on a glass tray.
“Excuse me!” she said. “Excuse me!”
He moved aside, into the corner of the dining room. He stared at me, and instead of answering my question, rose up on his toes and twirled like a ballerina. A grown man dancing like a little girl was queer, but mostly I thought he looked graceful, the lines of his body perfectly straight. He finished, raised his hands up in the air, bowed.
“Not that again,” Miss Macdonald said.
My lips quivered. Moths in my throat. And then for some reason I said, “What happened to the guy in the creek?” I still wanted to know.
Marty wrinkled his lips as though having a realization, seeing something for the first time. “He died. I went to the clink.”
“Tell him the truth, Marty, if you’re going to start it!”
“Quiet,” Marty said.
I swallowed. “What’s the clink?”
“Jail,” he said. “Or, home.”
“But home is where you want to be,” I said.
“Then maybe I wanted to be there. I didn’t have anywhere else to go.” He turned, walked out of the dining room. “Enjoy your cake, sister,” he said over his shoulder.
“Wait,” I said. I heard his feet above us on the second floor. The clink. A striped uniform. A ball and chain. Home.
I looked across the table at Miss Macdonald. Her face was pale. She cut the cake and offered me a piece. I placed my fork beside my plate.
“If you’ll excuse me,” I said.
I stood, walked into the hallway, up the stairs, slowly and then more quickly, until I reached the second floor.
“Marty?” I said quietly. The sound of my voice echoing on the walls. I had no idea which bedroom was his. I tried a few knobs but they were locked. “Why’d you go to the clink?” He didn’t answer; he wasn’t anywhere. Or, if he was somewhere, he was hiding.
I rode a roller coaster with Uncle Don when I was five. There’d been a mini-carnival set up at the edge of Langston, in the weeds and dirt.
The metal carts lurched and clunked forward, and finally flew down the tracks as though they’d been unhinged into the sky above, into air and space and time. I’m not sure what I hated most: the wind in my face, my neck wrenched this way and that, the smell of burnt popcorn in the air. Afterward Uncle Don said, “You got what you asked for, kiddo.”
Years later, I imagined my parents’ car crash had been like that: in the moments before they died, they’d sobbed like little babies, realized their lives were over, that the life they’d planned for me was over too. They blamed themselves—in my imagination they did—because they’d left me with Uncle Don to go to a wedding in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They left a three-month-old baby with a forty-year-old barkeep so they could have a fancy weekend alone.
The alternative, of course, was that I could have joined them for the wedding. I could have died too. Bam. A semi-truck.
Uncle Don holding me, feeding me, rocking me to sleep. He hadn’t just left me in a crib. I imagined Uncle Don taking care of me more often than I imagined the accident. It made me feel better about not having a mom and dad.
After leaving Miss Macdonald’s house, I circled around Langston until I was back on Brown. Each square house looked the same beneath the streetlights, illuminated by a yellow glow. The Macdonald home was dark except for a light on in the dining room.
As soon as I saw the light, I glanced over my shoulder, tiptoed through the front yard, and ducked beneath the window. I crouched in the gravel and listened.
I stood up. There was a gap in the closed curtains. Marty was reading at the dining room table like the other time. Probably the book about Eros. His undershirt so thin that you could see his nipples beneath the fabric, small as pennies. Now and then he’d close his eyes and lay his head on the back of the chair. There was a cigarette tucked behind his ear.
He looked up. We made eye contact and he rose from the table. I sucked in a breath, ducked, darted through the yard and across the street.
I wanted to talk to him but didn’t want him to know I spied. That would be the death of friendship, not the start.
I ran into a narrow alleyway. The old fences leaned in the shadows, and the slats looked long and sharp as swords. The moon was just a sliver now. I grasped my chest, bent over and held my knees. Everything had shifted inside me, my face and lungs and heart were raw and alive.
I heard him before I saw him. Feet through gravel and dirt.
“Billy,” he said. His face went from dark to light. Eyes flashing. “What are you doing?”
“I took a walk,” I said. My voice shook.
“That was you? In the window?”
He stepped forward. Reached out a hand.
“We were tussling, he and I, and he fell in. He fell in the creek.”
“You pushed him?” I said. My breath quickened.
“It wasn’t murder. It was… something called manslaughter. Which means I didn’t plan for him to die. An accident.”
Slaughter sounded worse than murder. For some reason, I’d never seriously considered the possibility that Marty was a killer.
“You at least feel bad about it?” I asked. It was all I could think to say.
“Bad isn’t the right word.”
“What, then?” I asked. “What’s the right word?”
“I feel like every day I’m alive, I should be dead.”
I swallowed. “I feel like that,” I said. “I feel like that sometimes.” As if I had no place in the universe. As if my uncle took care of me because he had to.
Marty stepped forward, hesitated for a moment, then hugged me. My face against his chest. I had an urge to cry, to burrow my face into his armpit.
An image flashed in my mind: I was dancing with Marty. Electricity through my body. I could smell the cinnamon gum and tobacco on his skin.
“I loved him,” he said. “It’s what we were talking about—a man loving a man.” He pulled away from me, looked into my face. “We were fighting, like lovers do—”
“You loved a man?” I interrupted.
“Eros,” he said. “Eros cursed me.”
“Is that why you’re reading about him? To get rid of the curse?” I’d given away the fact that I’d spied on him, that I knew the books he read, but I didn’t care anymore. If I had to give my secret away to find out about Marty, I was willing to do it.
“Sure,” he said. And then, “I already got rid of it.” A strange summer breeze shook the trees overhead. “Do you want my sister to give you a ride to White Pony?”
“No,” I said. I swayed in front of him. I felt a little dizzy.
“Are you okay?”
“I’d rather walk.” I was thinking about the God of Love, how he sometimes used love to ruin people. I was thinking maybe I loved Marty. I hadn’t realized until now. I wanted to love Marty—I wanted to be with him. All along, that’s what I’d been feeling. All along. Those moths in my throat. The hug.
Marty had loved a man; it was possible I could too. It was possible Eros had cursed both of us.
“Then walk,” he said. “Just walk home and I’ll see you around.” He knelt so we were face to face. “It’ll all feel better tomorrow.”
“How’d you get rid of it?” I asked quietly. “The curse?”
“Oh,” Marty said. He closed his eyes, opened them. “Well, he died. The curse is gone because my friend died. And Billy?” His eyes widened. “Don’t tell anybody what I told you. About the man in the creek, and all that.”
“I won’t,” I said.
I never did.
When I arrived at White Pony, I went straight in my room and locked the door without saying goodnight to Uncle Don or apologizing for coming home late.
I crawled into bed and pressed my hands between my thighs. Right away the questions started:
Had Marty tried to kiss his friend?
Had Marty leaned forward, gripped the man’s shoulders, pressed his lips against his neck?
Had the man refused him? Shoved against him?
Had Marty pushed the man down into the rocks, inky black blood, because he felt rejected?
I fell asleep, jolted awake, moaned. The moan came from an animal. Not from me.
I stood up, got a tissue, wiped my body. This had happened before but never about a specific person, always about a scene in a movie, or a picture in a magazine. Marty’s eyes, lips, hands—all of his body had been in my dream.
I lay in bed for another hour. My only relief that nobody would ever have to know how I felt about Marty. I could keep it inside forever.
Finally, I heard a knock at the door. I stood, opened it.
Uncle Don appeared in front of me in his work clothes. Long face shadowed and confused.
“You’re here,” he said. “I was going to call the police…” he trailed off. “I was out looking for you.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle,” I said. My tears surprised me, like the moan.
“I’m glad you’re okay.” He pulled me in for a hug.
I hadn’t been hugged in years, and now twice in a single evening. “But there’s never a good reason to cry, Billy.” It seemed to me he offered this advice as a consolation, a comfort. There was never a good reason to feel pain; you could prevent pain by avoiding painful things.
But I wasn’t really crying about my uncle, or getting home late. I was crying about the curse of Eros. For Marty, for his dead friend, for myself.
The next day, I didn’t snoop on Marty. I stayed in the bar with my uncle, and we sanded five oak tables he found at a secondhand store. Later, he took me out shooting. We drove an hour to a shooting range and when I aimed at the target and pulled the trigger, I felt myself and the gun acting as a single entity. I felt my whole body move.
I tried not to think about Eros. At night, though, I thought of Marty. He entered my imagination. My dreams. I let him.
A few weeks later, I saw Miss Macdonald at Harold’s and she told me Marty had packed up and caught a train to Georgia.
“Has he ever been to Georgia?” I asked.
“Not that I’m aware of,” she said.
I imagined him on a farm, picking cotton, tending apple trees. Sleeping in the fields on his downtime. Cigarette tucked behind his ear.
For a moment I felt awful, deep and dark awful, but then I thought, if it was possible for two men to love each other, for a kitty to love a canary, and all that, it was also possible I’d run into Mr. Marty Macdonald when I grew older. I’d never been anywhere other than Langston, but the world wasn’t so big. People found each other in the funniest ways, like me and Marty outside of Harold’s.
“Thanks, Miss Macdonald,” I said, and turned from her.
Sixth grade started. I saw Elvis Presley on television. Sleepy eyes, crooked mouth. The singer looked at every person in the audience, he looked at them and gyrated and gave himself away, crotch and hip thrusts and lips and everything. He didn’t hide pieces of himself. That’s why the audience screamed and fell to the floor. He filled them to the brim.
When the performance was over, I turned off the TV. I sat for a long time without moving, and closed my eyes.
Finally, I stood in the middle of the room, crisscrossing my bare feet slowly at first, then gaining momentum.
I danced all the way into the barroom. None of the men had ever seen this type of dancing before. My feet turning and turning. Mr. Edmond clapped his hands and Uncle Don laughed and a few guys playing pool gathered around.
Later, my uncle would retell the story as if I’d been possessed: “Something just overtook him,” he said. But it was me. I wasn’t hidden in a bush, looking in on people. I was out in the open, asking to be watched.
I imagined Elvis—and then Marty—holding my hand, and I spun and spun, and it felt good, like my body needed to spin. I wondered if Marty had felt that way, when he danced for me, or, and this seemed more likely, he danced so I wouldn’t feel like the only misfit in Langston. In the world.
“The God of Love” by Kindall Gray appeared in Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Kindall Gray teaches at University of Arizona, where she also received her MFA. Her fiction has appeared in One Story, Day One, The Chattahoochee Review, and CutBank.