Jack Pierson, Desire, Despair, 1996. Metal, plastic, plexiglass, and wood. 117 x 56 in

Junk Man Wayne was set to meet my father at seven. Even though my watch alarm beeped on the hour, I still checked the time every few minutes. I sat cross-legged on the floor next to my brother, Chris, watching sitcoms in the dim-lit front room. My father had just come home from his construction job. He’d bathed and put on a pair of clean clothes before joining us. Eyes red with fatigue, he leaned forward in his recliner and smoked.

Mom curled up on the end of the couch closest to my father. Her four-foot-ten and ninety-pound frame barely covered half the cushion. “I was about to load up this old vanity when a red and white truck pulled up, and Wayne stepped out,” she told my father. “Weren’t no need for me to bring that dresser home, and so I let him take it, seeing it’s how he makes a living. If I ran a junk business I’d be broke. Never let nothin’ go.”

My mother recognized Wayne as the stepfather of Chris’s friend Kevin. Wayne worked an antique stall at the flea market, and she’d run into him one day while out scavenging junk left on the curb. “Sidewalk shopping,” she called it. She drove around all the time, scouting out heaps of furniture, clothes, toys, and dishes. Sometimes she’d leave right after dinner, or run an hour late picking me up from school because she’d happened by a particularly handsome pile.

My father didn’t like the idea of me working for anyone besides him. Often, he paid Chris and me three dollars an hour to clean up after a construction job finished or before a remodel began. Wayne offered fifteen bucks for three hours of work.

“Won’t be like when you work with me,” my father said. “No talk-back. No I’m tired.

“I won’t ever have to ask you for money,” I said. I’d just started going steady with Tatum McDonald and wanted to take her out on a date.

My watch alarm beeped. I’d thrown away the instruction manual and had no idea how it was set. I could only make it stop by pressing all four buttons in quick succession. It was an adult watch, too big for my bone-thin wrist, but it glowed in the dark and I could hold it underwater when bathing.

When the junk man knocked on the door, Chris stood up and took his plate into the kitchen. I began to follow Chris, but Mom told me to wait and meet Wayne.

“Come on in,” my father said, holding the door open.

The junk man’s flannel shirt stretched over his large belly, and a hedge of bushy hair stuck out below a camouflage ball cap. He shook my hand and told Dad I didn’t look big enough to carry my own pecker.

“Unloaded that vanity, yet?” Mom asked.

“About come to blows with your wife over that dresser,” Wayne said to Dad, and both men laughed. Mom smiled, but she wrung her hands. Most nooks and shelves in our house were covered in her found kitsch: decorative tin cans with snowmen riding sleds, glass bottles in dark greens and browns, an antique porcelain doll with a giant hole taken out of one cheek. Lately, she’d begun collecting furniture.

“Make yourself scarce,” Dad told me. “Let us grownups talk.”

I found Chris in the backyard tossing a ball to our dog. Mom had originally wanted Chris to take the job but he wasn’t interested. He’d just turned fourteen and rarely left his room before everyone else went to sleep. When I asked Chris why he didn’t want the job he told me he’d already worked for Wayne before, back when he still hung out with Kevin.

“Why didn’t you say so?” I asked.

Chris shrugged and looked away. He mumbled something about Wayne being an asshole. The dog panted, holding the ball in his mouth. “Go bug someone else,” Chris said.

Wayne had already left when I came back inside, but the deal was done. He’d pick me up for work at 6 a.m. the next morning. My father said, “You do everything he tells you.” And my mother asked if I knew the way home in case I got sick, even though the fairgrounds, where Wayne set up his stall, were five blocks from the house. Dad shut her down. “You don’t leave early, even if you’re sick,” he said. “Stick it out until you’re done.”

Each twist of my tongue against hers reminded me of the rubber wrestlers Chris and I used to play with, Hulk Hogans and Pretty Boy Floyds.

Some time later I called Tatum. The downstairs phone had a sixty-foot cord. From the living room I could carry the receiver all the way to the back porch before it went taught. My favorite nook was the small playroom where we had a Nintendo and cable hooked up to a black and white TV. I shut the cord in the door and told Tatum, “Hey.”

Besides the night we met at a sleepover my friend Max orchestrated when his parents went out of town, Tatum and I hadn’t spent any time together. We didn’t share classes or recess because she was in sixth grade while I was in fifth. She was also thirteen to my ten and technically should have been in junior high but had been held back. For the most part we spent time on the phone, barely saying a word, watching TV together. To make conversation, I told her about the job. “Thought I could take you to a movie when I get paid.”

She held her hand over the mouthpiece and said he’s got a job to someone else.

“Who you talking to?”

“My mom.”

I could hear music in the background. “I’m on MTV,” she said, and I changed the channel to match hers.

During the sleepover at Max’s—after we’d watched TV, and played tag, Hail Mary, and charades—Tatum suggested Truth or Dare. According to her, the game involved spinning a wine bottle, but we made due with an empty two-liter of Orange Crush. At first the truths and dares were innocent enough: Max kissed the toilet seat; Tatum drank a concoction of condiments. But quickly each turn grew more sexual: Liz dared Max to kiss me on the mouth; Max dared Liz to kiss Tatum; Tatum dared Liz to show her breasts. Then the bottle landed on me, and Liz dared Tatum and I to spend seven minutes in heaven. I waited, having no idea what was expected of me, until Tatum took my hand and led me into Max’s room.

“Come on,” she said, “Let’s get this over with.”

I closed Max’s door and turned on the lights. Tatum gave me a sheepish look and turned them off again. She took my hands and led me to Max’s bed. I’d never kissed before but I’d seen how actors did in movies and so I tried to French as uniquely as possible. Each twist of my tongue against hers reminded me of the rubber wrestlers Chris and I used to play with, Hulk Hogans and Pretty Boy Floyds with slots opened in the back that we jammed our thumbs through. Making out with Tatum was the first time I’d explored a body that was not my own and my nerves were equally repelled and attracted by the softness of her skin.

* * *

When Wayne and I arrived at the fairgrounds we drove to the far corner of a massive parking lot where a few vendors had already begun setting up stalls. The sun hadn’t made it over the low-slung buildings yet. Everything was cast in a gray, early November light. Though I wore my flannel shirt and a jean jacket, I was still very cold.

Opening the back of his truck, Wayne pulled out a folding table. “Set this up,” he said.

I laid the table out flat on the ground, but couldn’t get the legs to expand. Frustrated and embarrassed that something so simple had bested me, I yelled—“Damn thing!” Wayne saw me struggling and came over. “Give me your hand.” Holding my small palm against a lever, he said, “Squeeze,” and the leg unhitched from the lock.

I unpacked plastic tubs and set up an eclectic array of rusted light fixtures, clocks, toys and dolls, board games and VHS tapes on the foldout tables. Inside one bin labeled “Valuables” were four glass jewelry cases that held pocket watches, belt buckles, perfume bottles, earrings, and necklaces.

“Set those up in the front,” Wayne said. “Make sure it’s the first thing folks see.”

In the top case, I noticed a pocket watch with military insignia—earth speared by an anchor and in the clutches of an eagle. I’d never seen a watch like that before. I checked the tag—twenty-five dollars—and buried it at the bottom of the case, hoping no one would buy it before I could.

“Help me drag out your mama’s dresser,” Wayne said.

Climbing into the back of the truck, I pushed the dresser up to the tailgate. It was tall and the mirror scuffed against the roof of the camper top.

“Get down and hold onto the back legs. I’ll lift it off.”

I held the legs as tight as I could, but the dresser was too heavy for me to carry. To keep from dropping my end I leaned back, pinning myself between the vanity and truck bed. A thick layer of green paint chipped off the dresser as I fought to keep my grip. Underneath the paint was a dark stain with thick splits in the wood.

“Set it down,” Wayne said. “Don’t hold it by the legs like that.”

“Stuck,” I said, my voice sounding whiney. “I’m stuck.”

“Thought you were grown enough for the job.” He winked from his end of the dresser. “Listen, I’m gonna put my end down. Slow as I can. You just stay there. Don’t move.”

Once his end was on the ground, he shimmied behind me and took hold of the legs. I could feel the soft of his stomach press against my back, and his thighs tightened. “I’ll lift up and give you some room to crawl out,” he said. The angle forced me to slide down so close to his body that I could smell the sour sweat of his jeans.

I asked her why she wanted some stranger’s old pictures and journals. “They’re memories, honey,” she said. “You can’t throw out memories.”

For the rest of the day, Wayne had me deal with customers while he sat in the heated truck. Even though the day was freezing, a surprising number of people poked around. There were other vendors to talk with. The guy next to us sold used records and stereo equipment. The woman to the left sold used baby clothes. She gave me a pair of pink child gloves to wear because my fingers were numb from the cold.

By the time we loaded up and left for the day I’d worked five hours. Wayne’s stall had been busy. I was jazzed with anticipatory spending. But as we pulled up in front of my house, Wayne only handed me fifteen dollars. When I asked about the missing ten, he said, “I told your daddy I’d pay you fifteen a day. Not five an hour.”

* * *

When I finally took Tatum on a date, we saw Wayne’s World. My mom was hesitant about letting us go out alone, but relented when Tatum’s mom agreed to meet with her before the movie. On a Friday night, my mother drove me to Highland Park Cinema and we waited in her minivan for the little red convertible to pull up.

Mom had the radio tuned to the oldies station and she sang along to “Brown Eyed Girl,” bouncing in her seat and waving her arms over to me and then back toward her window—“Car dance,” she said. “Come, honey, car dance.” But Tatum was half an hour late, and I didn’t feel like car dancing. “Used to love the car dance,” Mom said, glowering. She lit a cigarette, inhaled, and looked out across the parking lot. Boxes full of papers, manila envelopes, and photo albums filled the back seat. I asked her why she wanted some stranger’s old pictures and journals. “They’re memories, honey,” she said. “You can’t throw out memories.”

Around a quarter to six, Tatum’s mom pulled up in front of the theater. Mom said, “That her?” as I yanked open my door. But the red convertible had squealed off before I was out of the van. “So much for meet-the-parents,” Mom said.

At the theater entrance, Tatum hugged my waist, leaning her head onto my shoulder. “My mom’s having a tantrum,” she said. “She thinks her boyfriend’s cheating on her.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Once Mom got overcharged at Ike’s Grocery and, back home, staring down at the receipt, she’d yelled, “That fucker cheated me out of thirty cents.”

I rubbed Tatum’s back like boys in movies did when girls were upset. “You’re sweet,” Tatum said, and kissed me on the mouth at the very moment Mom pulled up next to us and honked her horn. We jolted apart.

“I’ll be back by eight,” Mom yelled. Her eyes narrowed and she scrunched her mouth up the way she did when I’d done something bad in public and she didn’t want to make a scene. The face said you’re dead meatlater.

Inside the auditorium, I asked Tatum, “What row?”

She pointed to the front, and I followed with our large popcorn and drink. When the movie started I held her hand, and leaned over to ask if she was all right. She kissed me again, but as we kissed, separated by plastic armrests and our giant Coke, I had no idea what to do with my hands. I held one under my thigh, while the other clutched her seat. She loosened my grip and pulled my hand toward her knee and as I freed my other hand I knocked our drink onto the floor. I jerked away, frantically trying to figure out a way to stop the stream of Coke and ice that was spreading beneath us.

Tatum said, “Forget it,” and kissed me.

I laid my hand against her waist, and she untucked her shirt. My alarm beeped the hour as Tatum guided my hand up and against the firm padding of her bra. The watch face glowed neon through her pink shirt. I clasped all four buttons through the fabric until the beeping stopped.

Underneath the smell of coffee, cigarette smoke, and body odor, something warm, homey, lurked inside Wayne’s truck.

The next morning, as I waited for Wayne to pick me up, Dad made coffee in the kitchen. The pot sounded with the gurgles and spitting coughs I’d known since birth, and he asked if I wanted a cup. I was still so dazed from my date with Tatum the night before that I didn’t respond.

“Hey,” Dad called again. “Sleepyhead.” He pushed a cup of coffee with sugar and cream across the kitchen table. “Don’t tell your mom.”

It was too bitter. I coughed as it went down, hot in the back of my throat.

“Too strong,” Dad laughed. “Put hair on your chest, that’s for sure.”

He always said that whenever I didn’t like something adults did. I added two more spoons of sugar and a lot more milk. What I got tasted like dirty ice cream, but I wanted my father to believe I liked it. Dad smoked, his arms resting on his knees, his hair hanging loose over his face, wearing only a red union suit. His eyes were puffy with sleep, and every once in a while he’d rub a knot out of his shoulder or lower back. When Wayne pulled up, he said, “Don’t work too hard. It’ll keep you young.”

A steady wind made getting the stall set up almost unbearable. Wayne stayed in the truck while I laid out the tub marked “Valuables.” I dug around the case until I found the military watch. The spring had come unwound, as it did every week, but shaking the watch usually got it to tick again. While I set the pocket watch to my digital time, Wayne called me over, suggesting we wait in the heated cab until a customer drifted by.

Once I climbed inside, he cranked the heat and a faint smell of gasoline crept through the vents. Trash was piled up on the floorboard around my feet, and a box full of snack cakes and chips sat in the space between us. Underneath the smell of coffee, cigarette smoke, and body odor, something warm, homey, lurked inside Wayne’s truck. Wayne tapped a cigarette from his pack, and lit up, blowing out a thick cloud of smoke through his clenched teeth.

“What you like to do?” Wayne asked.

“Nothing, really,” I said. His question shook me, and suddenly I could not think of a single thing that I liked, or that I thought worth sharing with an adult. I liked MTV. I liked Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Guns N’ Roses. But Dad didn’t like those things, so I didn’t know why Wayne would care. Then I thought about Tatum, the silver sheen of her face in the first row of the movies and the padding of her bra.

“You got a girlfriend?”

“Yeah,” I said. I told him about making out at the movies, and he listened.

“Woo-wee,” he said, sucking air through his teeth. “Watch out for them feisty ones.”

Wayne pulled another cigarette from his pack and lit it off the old, sparks popping from the cherry. Only one half lit, and Wayne said, “Means somebody’s thinking about my dick.” He caught my eye, a sheepish look on his face. “You want one?” he asked.

I took the cigarette.

“How long you smoked?”

“A year,” I lied. It was my first time.

“I started around ten, too.”

And I liked that Wayne didn’t say I was too young. I leaned back in my seat with the lit cigarette between my fingers. I drew smoke into my mouth and held it between my cheeks, warm against my teeth, before blowing out a thick cloud. I drew in again.

“Hey now.” He motioned with his hand for me to move away from the window. “Can’t have anybody seeing you smoke that thing.”

Wayne moved his box of food onto the dash, opening up a space in the seat between us. “Watch me,” he said. Cupping the cigarette into the palm of his hand, it disappeared from plain sight. “No one sees, right?” Wayne took a drag from the hidden cigarette, and bent down close to my lap, blowing the smoke toward the floorboard.

“Now you,” he said.

I cupped the cigarette like he showed me and took a drag. When I bent down to blow out the smoke, Wayne put his hand on my neck and guided me closer to his lap. I stiffened. His calloused hand felt rough against my skin. My parents always told us kids that we should never let a grown up touch us. Just the year before we watched a three-hour documentary about abducted, murdered children. But strangers took those kids, and Wayne had been invited over to the house.

“Stay down low,” he said, lifting his hand from my neck.

From where I crouched in the cab of his truck all I could see was the gas pedal and the crotch of his jeans. I rose back up, and stared out the window for a while. Playing it cool, I kept the cigarette hidden in my hand. Taking another drag, I bent down toward his side of the truck again, but this time I leaned closer to the car radio. Again, he guided my head between his legs. “Don’t tell nobody,” he said. “We got to keep our secrets between us. Anyone finds out and we’ll both be in deep water.”

* * *

Tatum and I hid in the round plastic bubble on our elementary school play tower long after school had let out. Normally she’d walk home, but I’d convinced my mom to pick me up late and take her home so we could spend time together. The multicolor globe cast an orange light on us as we kissed, but we were cold and hungry.

According to my watch, Mom was running twenty minutes late. Every so often I’d poke my head through the top of the colored bubble expecting to see her van, but each time the parking lot was empty.

“I’m gonna walk home,” Tatum said.

I waited a long while after Tatum went home, standing at the top of the tower, wanting to slide but fearing I would look dumb if someone saw me. When Mom finally honked, I’d gotten over being angry and had started to get worried. She waved from inside the warm van, little mittens over her hands and the windows rolled up.

“Where’ve you been?” I asked.

“Where’s Tatum?”

“Home,” I said. “She couldn’t wait any longer.”

Mom apologized for being late. She said, “Thought you’d two want more time together.”

A narrow, long-backed chair sat cramped on the back seat. Behind it I saw boxes of what looked like toys.

“What’d you find this time?” I asked.

“Oh, you’ll love it,” she said. “There’s He-Men and some of those little blue guys that look like Smurfs, but aren’t. Some dolls.”

She drove in the opposite direction of home, and when I asked her where we were going, she said, “Back by that house.”

“I’m starving,” I said, but it didn’t matter. Fifteen minutes later we pulled to a stop in front of a house in an upscale neighborhood.

“Need your help with the boxes,” she said.

As a kid, the idea that people watched Mom scavenge was what I hated the most. She stepped out; her legs, the muscle ravaged by polio, were gaunt under beige capris pants, and the left knee buckled under as she stepped up onto the curb. There were about fifteen boxes set neatly out on the sidewalk. I rolled down the window and cold air rushed against my face. “All the boxes?”

“Just the toys,” she said, opening one box and showing me the G.I. Joe snowmobile. A toy I once coveted.

“There’s more.”

“I don’t want to, Mom.”

“Oh, so it’s cool when Wayne does it, but not me?” she said.

Stepping out into the cold, I threw open the sliding van door and began loading boxes as fast as I could until all but a few had been stuffed inside. As I wrangled some other kid’s toys into every available nook, Mom opened the boxes, standing at the van door, and dug through them on the spot.

“What are you gonna do with all this?” I asked. “We don’t play with toys anymore.”

She slapped the box closed, and began walking toward the driver side of the van. “It’s nice stuff,” she said. “I never had stuff this nice.”

* * *

Not long after, I decided I would quit working for Wayne. Besides not paying by the hour, he kept wanting me to sit in the truck and talk about Tatum. Because Wayne was interested, I told him stories, like how Tatum and I had snuck into a storage room at the Oak Ridge Mall. Christmas decorations had recently been stowed away, and a giant Santa head stuck out from piles of fake snow. But his questions always pointed toward sex—“You touch her coochie?”—and because I wanted to impress him, I lied—“We totally kiss naked all the time.”

I’d drawn together a nest of excuses that were all true: Wayne didn’t pay me what he said he would, Wayne made me smoke between his legs, Wayne talked dirty.

When I told Mom that I wanted to quit, she only said, “Your daddy’s been telling everybody about how you’re holding down a job.”

I waited on the porch for Dad to get home from work. “What’s the word, thunderbird?” he said as he stepped down from his truck.

“Got to talk to you about something.”

His back straightened. He held his lunch pail in one hand and a squished pack of cigarettes in the other. Paint and sawdust covered his denim jacket and jeans. When I told him I wanted to quit working for Wayne, he let out a breath.

I’d drawn together a nest of excuses that were all true: Wayne didn’t pay me what he said he would, Wayne made me smoke between his legs, Wayne talked dirty. But what I blurted out was, “He makes me stand outside all day in the cold while he sits in the truck with the heat on.” I felt the lie might be more believable.

Dad smiled, and lit a cigarette. I could see my reflection in his aviator sunglasses. My eyes were too big for my thin face, too eager. “First job I had, I was maybe twelve, and the boss worked me digging a foundation for a house. Eight hours in the scorching heat. When I went to get paid, the fat bastard told me I’d have to wait till next week. Never saw that money, and your papaw popped me upside the head when I told him. He said, ‘Never let a man take your earnings.’” Dad laughed to himself. “Got to take a lot of grief before you can sit up in the heated truck. Just how the world works. Stick it out one more week, and see how you feel.”

* * *

The one time I met Tatum’s mother face to face was when we drove to Shelby Forest on a Sunday with the intention of riding horses. I’d never been around a horse and was terrified by the prospect. Tatum’s grandparents had taken her riding the summer before, and she told me her horse had jerked the reins from her mother’s grip and bolted up the trail away from the adults. “I’ve never been happier than on that horse,” she’d said.

Tatum’s mom and her mom’s boyfriend, Dan, left us at the car while they went to fetch the horses. Fifteen minutes later, the two adults rode up on large brown beasts with blonde hair hanging below their neckline. I waited for mine to come trotting down the trail, but no others came. “Y’all behave now,” her mom said. “We’ll be back in an hour.”

Tatum and I had been going steady for five months at that point, and it was the first time I’d seen her cry. She didn’t want to talk to me, and so she locked herself in the car. I busied myself climbing a tree with low-slung branches until the adults returned.

Later that afternoon, Tatum’s mom rented Dances With Wolves and bought pizza. The four of us set up camp in front of the television—Tatum and I on the floor, the adults on the couch. Twenty minutes into the movie, her mom said, “Tatum, honey. I’m gonna take a nap. Make sure you get me up in time to take him home.” She and Dan walked to the far end of the hall. I heard the door to her mom’s room lock.

“Come here,” Tatum said without turning around.

I lay down behind her, and put my arms around her waist. “Mom’s so stupid,” she said. I rubbed her back the way I did outside Wayne’s World, but when I rose up to kiss her, she said, “Don’t,” and brought my arm between her legs. My wristwatch caught on her dress and pulled a thread loose.

“God,” she said. “Take this stupid watch off.”

She guided my arm under the hem of her skirt and moved my wrist bone between her legs. I leaned over to kiss her and again she said, “Don’t.” Her legs tightened over my arm. The noises she made under her breath sounded eerily adult. I wouldn’t discover masturbation for another year, but at thirteen, Tatum was an older woman. And as she rubbed herself against my arm, I grew bored, resting my head on my free hand, watching Kevin Costner ride a horse through an open meadow. When she made an ouch noise, I thought I’d hurt her.

“What happened?”

“Thank you,” she said. “I needed that.”

* * *

The last day I worked for Wayne, he sold Mom’s vanity. Though it was cold, and Wayne bugged me to sit with him inside the truck, I hung around outside by the tables. Wearing gloves and a knit hat, I talked up a pearl-handled shaving knife to a man with yellow tobacco stains in his beard. An elderly woman bought a rusted-shut coal lantern. I wiped the glass cases with Windex, and alternated between winding the military watch and hiding it when a customer sauntered by.

Just after it started to snow a woman appeared and asked, “How much that dresser going for?” She wore a Tweety Bird t-shirt with lace fringe around the neckline. I told her Wayne wanted $150, and she scoffed.

“Hey,” she called to the truck, ignoring me. “Hey! This boy thinks trash is gold.”

Wayne stepped out of the truck, asking her how much she was willing to pay. The exchange went quickly. The woman said fifty, and Wayne told her seventy-five plus delivery. I thought about my mom. Wayne cared about the money, but Mom cared about something entirely different. Though I had no way of articulating it then, I can see now that what she wanted was the memento. The object itself intrigued her—Can’t throw out memories.

I felt trapped beneath the light, soft weight of his hand.

The snow thickened after the woman left, and I had no choice but to climb into the heat of Wayne’s truck. My fingers were numb. Wayne handed me a cup of coffee. Unlike the sweet and milky stuff I’d started drinking with Dad on those early Saturday mornings before we both went off to work, the coffee Wayne handed me was black. It burnt my tongue, and I spit it back into the cup.

“Put hair on your chest,” he said.

I took another drink. Wayne patted my back. “There you go,” he said, rubbing his fingers along my shoulder blade. Most customers had gone inside the main building, and the outside vendors had started to pack up.

“Tell me more about this little lady you got,” he said.

“Nothing to say,” I said. Though there was a lot to say. Each time I thought about lying on the floor in Tatum’s living room, an uneasy feeling rose in my gut.

Wayne took a drink of coffee, and after setting his Styrofoam cup back into the console, he rested his hand on my thigh. With both of my hands wrapped around the cup for warmth, I stared into the steam, watching the vapor thin. He ran his finger down the inside of my leg. Slow. “Does she touch you like this?” His touch was gentle. My nerves stood on end the way they had that first night I kissed Tatum. When I didn’t respond, he moved his finger up my thigh, closer to my crotch, and I felt trapped beneath the light, soft weight of his hand.

“Like this?” He cupped his fingers under my dick. The moist warmth of his grip heated the deep recesses of my groin. Wayne’s palm pushed up and down over my jeans, and my balls twitched and shrunk into tiny acorns. My penis retracted into the shell of my scrotum.

I opened the truck door. “I’m gonna go look around,” I said. Wayne’s hand jerked away. Stepping out into the falling snow, I waited for his permission to leave. He tapped the steering wheel, staring straight ahead.

“Hold on,” he said, and handed me a twenty-dollar bill. “Pick up some donuts while you’re at it,” he said. “Keep the change.”

I thought keep the change as I made my way deep into the caravans of junk peddlers. Most vendors had packed up their goods, but a fair amount strung tarpaulin over their booths and stared out into the thickening white. I had no intention of buying anything, but I pretended to look around at the different stalls: chainsaws and skill saws; jewelry and purses; clothes and shoes. Browsing gave me something to do until I felt less jittery. I bumbled from one table to the next, picking up rusted knives and asking the price of a worn leather wallet, but I couldn’t shake Wayne’s touch.

I lived five blocks away. I could’ve walked home, but I didn’t. I envisioned Dad and me driving back and the two of us ganging up on Wayne, but then I’d have to tell him about Wayne’s hand on my crotch. In the end, I felt indebted to Wayne, and a little greedy. After all, if I stayed on, taking in my regular pay on top of the nineteen, I’d make thirty-four bucks.

Eventually I ventured indoors. The place was packed with people taking shelter from the snow, and I pushed through the crowd until I reached the donut stand at the far end of the building. I bought a chocolate-covered donut with sprinkles because it was Wayne’s favorite, and a jelly-filled one for myself.

At Wayne’s stall, I ate my donut in the snow and he didn’t stop me. I took the military watch out of the case, with its long chain and world-clutching eagle, and slipped it into my coat pocket. It was the first thing I’d ever stolen, and I immediately felt guilty. But instead of putting it back, I unclasped my wristwatch, the one that glowed green underwater, and shoved it in among the junk antiques.

* * *

That summer, I told Chris about Wayne. Tatum and I had broken up. I spent a lot of time watching MTV with Chris in his room. He’d gotten a color set for Christmas, and it wobbled atop a stack of How It Works encyclopedias. A metal serving tray with rolling papers and tobacco squeezed from cigarette butts was set out on the floor.

“Can I roll one?” I didn’t wait for him to answer, but grabbed a pinch of tobacco and dribbled it into a rolling paper. I folded it over like the flap of an envelope.

“Not like that,” he said.

He took the paper and tobacco from me. “Watch,” he said, and rolled it up like a carpet. “You have to get it tight.”

I reached out to take it, but he said, “You’re too young to smoke.”

“Fuck you,” I said. “I smoke already.”

“Yeah, when?”

“With Wayne,” I said.

Chris gave me the rolled cigarette. Flicking the lighter hurt my fingers, and I turned away, cupping my hand over the flame to avoid his stare. I caught my reflection in a full-length mirror that leaned against his wall.

“You know why I stopped working for Wayne? It was because—” I looked back to see if Chris was listening. He was. He sat up in bed—“because he grabbed my dick.”

I hadn’t told anyone about Wayne. I could still feel his touch, and each time I thought about his truck I felt guilty. Not guilty for stealing the watch, but ashamed that I couldn’t separate the sensuality of his touch from Tatum’s. Chris didn’t say anything. He just watched me, and waited. I pulled smoke into my cheeks, held it, blew out.

“Does that make me gay?” I asked, and my whole body seized into a brief but snotty bout of crying. Sitting down next to me on the floor, Chris rubbed my back, but I shrugged him off.

“Did he touch you too?” I asked.

Chris shook his head, but it was a lie.

In his room, I drew smoke into my mouth and held it between my cheeks. The reflection of my face was red, blotchy in the mirror. Chris laughed when I blew the smoke out, his light blue eyes large with scorn. He held his cigarette comically high at the tip of his fingers and took a drag, puffing his cheeks out like a balloon. “That’s what you look like,” he said. “You’re not smoking if you don’t inhale. Breathe it into your lungs. Otherwise you’re just faking.”

Chris took a drag, held it deep down, and exhaled a thin cloud of smoke. He handed back my cigarette and I inhaled, surprised by the harsh burn as the smoke hit the depths of my throat. I choked, coughing until my stomach hurt. But I wanted to learn how to do it right, without faking it, and so when the fit cleared I inhaled a second time.


Randal O’Wain

Randal O’Wain is a fiction writer and essayist from Memphis, Tennessee, whose work appears in The Oxford American, Booth, Crazyhorse, Redivider, and Hobart: another literary journal, among others. He lives in Iowa City, where he teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Iowa.

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