“He named me after his Pearl Custom Export kit. Now Mom hates it, but she’s not a hippie anymore,” Pearl said.
“The times they are a-changin’.”
“Can’t hear you,” said Pearl.
I dipped my shoulder. Near the baseball diamond’s backstop, a kid crouched, jabbing a cat with a branch.
“Dude,” said Pearl, “top secret news. I found a chicken suit.”
“In the sports equipment room. I hid it in the woods.”
“You’re all like, who is this crazy girl. Promise you won’t tell anyone?”
Her eyes were big and grey. Pretty? I nodded.
The cafeteria doors creaked open. A woman in an apron waved us inside with her spatula. Our line lurched forward.
“I’ll show you, uh, tomorrow?” whispered Pearl, patting my bicep, and I flexed as she patted. Why had she told me?
That night, while undressing on my upper bunk, I caught Andy’s eye, accidentally. He was sitting on his top bunk across the room. Andy smiled, raised a pocketknife, swung a blade open, then snapped it shut.
I plugged in my ear buds and flipped to “Watermelon Man.”
* * *
I woke up breathing loudly, my sleeping bag bunched around my ankles. With my whole body I listened. Even the hairs on my earlobes listened. Counselor P.J. snored. One leaf skittered through the open doorway.
Why did I feel scared? I sat up. Next to me, Sherman’s mouth gaped on his pillow, and the moon gleamed off his tongue. Everyone slept. Their faces looked weirdly white. For a second I thought I saw a Raggedy Ann doll on the floor, but when I dropped down from my bunk, it was just somebody’s flashlight.
The concrete floor froze my bare feet. Andy’s bed lay empty. Stewart’s bed, below Andy’s, was vacant, too. What the heck? Without making noise, I slipped on my flip-flops, jeans and jacket.
Outside, the oaks and firs creaked, like our house settling, and bugs droned a shrill wet note. I sloughed through the pine needles and clammy forest litter, skipped over dead branches. My flip-flops whapped my feet. Too loud. I imagined Stewart and Andy crouched naked in a forest enclave, index fingers shushing each other’s lips. Maybe they would have boners and they would be touching each other’s mouths and listening to me walk. I took off my flip-flops. Leaves prickled my feet. Now my steps were quiet. I reached the dining hall. I kept moving. Mountainous backlit clouds crumbled over the moon and patches of light scarred the sky, like someone had ripped pieces out. It felt like a dream.
Jim said his dreams bored him. They lasted forever: For hours, he stood in the shower, squirting bottle after bottle of Herbal Essences shampoo into his palm, rubbing his stout slick body. Sometimes he shelved library books. Since his dreams made me laugh, I always asked about them. In one dream, Jim and I took the public Metro downtown on a field trip to the Seattle Art Museum. When he reached the entrance, I had vanished, so he ran from building to building, looking for me. After searching every downtown business, Banana Republic to Urban Outfitters to F.A.O Schwarz to GameWorks, he only had one place left to check, Burger King. Inside Burger King, he yelled, “Burger King!”
“In retrospect, I should have said ‘Eddie,'” said Jim.
Maybe it would be easier if I just married Jim. Who needed females? We’d be partners. Like a business.
What was it with me? Did I even like girls?
Pearl, I thought. Her nose is too big.
I imagined saying, “Dad, I need to tell you about me and Jim.”
Home from a business trip, he would be reading the newspaper and sipping coffee. He would stand up. As his cup hit the floor, Mom would run into the room.
“Mi corazón, este niño tiene algo para decirnos,” he would say. “Dale, Ed.”
The dark lake lay ahead. When I approached the water’s lip, I almost tripped on an upside-down aluminum rowboat. I climbed on top and sat Indian-style. Something poked my thigh. Cigarettes. I lit one and held the smoke in my mouth, feeling it soak my throat. I blew through the nostrils.
A tiny personal campfire. Better than summer-camp bonfires. Nobody weeping over the power of friendship. One man and his smoke. My nose was running. I coughed and threw the cigarette into the water. Across the lake, a house’s windows glowed, lonely on the land, and shadows fluttered through squares of light cast over the yard.
When I returned, Andy and Stewart lay asleep in their beds.
* * *
“What are you staring at?” Andy said to me. “You’re an ugly fucker, you know? There’s this great new invention called soap. You should buy some.”
Stewart, who sat next to Andy at the dining table, snickered into his hand.
It was breakfast time. Motes of dust and hair and skin hung in sunbeams shafting through the skylights. My pancakes looked nearly see-through, which felt embarrassing. I covered them with syrup and margarine. They seemed better.
“Must have zits plugging his ears, too,” said Andy.
“Good one,” I said.
“Faggot,” said Andy.
“Sure,” I said.
“Boys,” said Counselor P.J. from the end of the table. Andy ducked his head over his eggs.
Sherman, the Benadryl twin, sat down across from me, slamming his tray down and rasping his chair backward. His shirt said “Vietnam: We Were Winning When I Left.” Sherman’s plate held a shining pile of hash browns, just hash browns.
“Do you play ping pong?” he asked me. He licked ketchup from his thumb.
“What?” I said.
“Ping pong,” he said. “I used to tour with a professional team. We partied together and shit.”