Featured Prose | August 20, 2020
“A Cruel Gap-Toothed Boy” by Matthew Baker
When two gentle, bookish men discover that their teenaged niece is being bullied by a youth at school, they are propelled unto uncharacteristic aggression. The potential of harm and hate to multiply, and the double-edged power of language, are at the center of Matthew Baker’s story “A Cruel Gap-toothed Boy.” The story first appeared in TMR‘s winter 2012 issue and is included in Baker’s new collection Why Visit America, just out from Henry Holt.
A Cruel Gap-Toothed Boy
By Matthew Baker
In seventh grade this “Nate Vanderveen” chose to lavish our niece with flowering weeds, with convenience-store chocolates, with love notes written on the back of homework he hadn’t done, but now in ninth grade this “Nate” chooses to lavish her with curses (“Go fuck a dog, prude”), ridicule (“My tits are bigger than that bitch’s”) and slander (“Emma sucked me off once too”). He is what in the eighteenth century they would have called a “brute,” a “ruffian,” a “goon,” what in the twenty-first century they now call a “thug.” Kenneth thinks the boy is antisocial, meaning psychopathic, once saw the boy perched on the roof of his family’s cottage preparing to hurl a stray cat onto the driveway three stories below. We live in a village on the shore of Lake Michigan. I am a lexicographer; my brother is a professor of dead languages. His expertise is the words from these languages for which English has no equivalent. Kenneth uses these words when he can, although it is rare that he finds the occasion. This “Nate” is such an occasion. Kenneth refers to the boy as kimlee, which best translated means “foe-who-has-chosen-you”; this makes Kenneth the boy’s kimloo, or “foe-you-have-chosen.” We live in a state once affluent from its industries of handcrafted furniture and gasoline automobiles, a state now impoverished, as plastic and polyester replace wood and leather, as the pumpjacks of other states drain what’s left of the dwindling petroleum in our nation’s reservoirs. It is a state in which it is rare for a forty-something man to refer to a fourteen-year-old boy as his foe, regardless of the language used to do so. In the eighteenth century we might have challenged the boy to a duel by pistols, but it is the twenty-first century, and in Michigan, as in nineteen other states in our nation, dueling is illegal—dueling and all other “consensual altercations.”
But the boy spits in Emma’s face in the cafeteria, bullies her friends into deserting her, scribbles elaborate drawings of an elderly and childless Emma living alone (“like your gay uncles used to”) with labels attached to the indicators of loneliness he’s chosen to include there (“cats” “hate mail from your neighbors” “cat food that you have to eat too cause you’re so poor” “more cats” “dildo you hump thinking about wrinkly grandfather dicks” “more cats”) and slips these drawings through the slot in her locker door and then walks away whistling as if he were a kindly old mail carrier instead of a cruel gap-toothed boy who reeks of mildew and reeks of sweat and has just found another way to traumatize the same girl he’s left sobbing in various classrooms and hallways several times this week alone.
The school principal is of no use, cannot do or refuses to do anything other than occasionally suspend this “Nate” for a handful of school days, which to a boy of that sort is more holiday than exile, giving him schoolless days on which he must do nothing aside from wander the beach throwing rocks at boats he doesn’t own and plotting how he might next make Emma hate herself a little bit more. The boy has a gift of transformation: in weeks he has transformed Emma from a girl unashamed of her braces, a girl unashamed of her brother’s lisp, a girl who loved reading books with dragons on their covers, into a girl who refuses to enter the public library, a girl who will not sit next to her brother on the bus, a girl who will not smile for fear of showing her teeth. Kenneth and I too are transformed. We were timid men, not prone to brooding, not prone to fantasies of batting at a fourteen-year-old’s knees with a shovel, of snapping teeth from a fourteen-year-old’s gums. We were men who drank twig tea, who planted rhubarb behind our cottages, who left apple cores on our porch railings for the squirrels to eat if they pleased. We were men who, when our sister fled to the capital city of our nation to be with her new lover and asked if we would move into her cottage to care for her children, each said, simply, yes, despite knowing she would not return soon, might be returning never. We did not say yes because we meant yes; we said yes because we were too timid to say the no we meant. But now this boy has transformed us into something other than timid. Kenneth and I have decided we will hurt him. We will hurt the boy in a way that he will feel and keep feeling and never stop feeling, mutilate his psyche in a way that will make him fear us and what we are capable of even after we are dead. We want to hurt him in this way because we are afraid that this is the way in which he has already hurt Emma—he has transformed her, and Kenneth and I are unsure how to restore her, unsure if we are even capable of changing her back.
I have worked for over two decades as a lexicographer. Unlike most lexicographers, my task is not to write definitions for existent words nor to revise those definitions already written by others. Instead, my task is to write what are known in my industry as “mirage words.”
Publishers of dictionaries are fearful of plagiarism; it is undesirable for someone to copy the definitions from our dictionaries and then begin printing their own. But with dictionaries it is difficult to monitor theft. When lexicographers write a definition for an existent word, they are not creating—they are articulating some abstract idea that already exists in the collective consciousness of speakers. When lexicographers write a definition for the word unwanted, they are all defining the same unwanted—similar to a crowd of artists painting portraits of the same face, artists who are paid to recreate that face as realistically as possible. Overlap is inevitable, theft difficult to prove.
Thus it is my task is to write mirage words: fictional words with fictional definitions. Othery is a word I recently wrote, a noun I defined as “suffering experienced through empathy for another’s suffering, more painful than that original suffering.” Including mirage words such as othery in our dictionaries does not undermine their credibility. Dictionaries are not read; dictionaries are used only for the looking-up of certain words, for meaning or spelling. Dictionary users will not look up othery because othery does not exist. But if othery appears in another dictionary, then we will know the publishers of that dictionary have stolen from our work—othery could have only come from our dictionary.
It was not until I’d moved in with Emma and Christopher that I was able to write othery. Never before had I experienced that suffering. When I lived alone in my own cottage, I did not experience this pain. I imagine that even when our sister lived with the children she did not feel this othery for them—otherwise I doubt she ever could have left.
My understanding of the world is shaped by these words I have written. If it were not for othery, I would not have agreed with Kenneth’s plan to hurt the boy. It is not Emma’s pain I am trying to end so much as my own. Like Kenneth, I carry a private language, words that in our village I alone am capable of speaking or thinking. But while Kenneth carries words written by the dead, mine are words of my own making.
We begin by tailing this “Nate” after school, during the hours when Emma rehearses for her play in the high school auditorium and Christopher trains in the field beyond the high school for the marching band. Marching band is meant for high schoolers only, but Christopher has outclassed the other middle school clarinetists to such an extent that the director of the marching band has promoted him to “honorary high schooler.” For us this is ideal: if Christopher were not in marching band, we would be stuck in our cottage after school, supervising Christopher like responsible tians, unable to study the movements of this “Nate Vanderveen.”
Tians is a word that, if my work were read, would be useful to many in our village; tians is the plural form of tian, a noun I wrote for our student dictionary that I defined as “a relative responsible for a child’s upbringing.” Many children in our village are raised not by mothers or fathers but by aunts, grandfathers, cousins, half-sisters. Words such as these are offensive in that what they really mean—aunt, grandfather, cousin, half-sister—is “not-mother,” “not-father,” and therefore “not-parent.” For someone parenting a child, this implied label of “not-parent” can be hurtful.
Kenneth parks our pickup at the high school, alongside the station wagons and minivans of other tians, these tians waiting for their own children instead of the cruel gap-toothed child of another. These station wagons and minivans might have been built by our tian, the grandfather who raised us and who retired from the automobile factories to the lake only months before the bankruptcies came, before the factories were abandoned, before they were overrun with squatters, before they were converted into laboratories for manufacturing the psychoactive chemicals that in our nation are illegal to make or sell and doubtless are now our state’s primary source of income. Our tian fed us, bought us books when he sometimes had not even the money for his own cigarettes, but otherwise ignored us; he had discovered that we were boys who had no aptitude for working with oil sockets, spanner wrenches, head alignment pins, boys who loved words instead. It was only once our sister was older that he found a child who loved tools.
“Books aren’t going to feed you,” our tian would say, wielding some wrench or microtorch, shouldering through the door to work on his motorcycle in the driveway with our sister. “Come on out. You boys may as well learn now.” But we would stay on the floor, where we lay among our piles of books, not daring to look up from the words on their pages until the spring on the door had snapped it shut and we were sure our tian was gone and could not force us to come out into the sun to run him tools back and forth from his toolbox.
But now the boys who’d had an aptitude for working with automobiles are working in apple orchards, grocery stores, gas stations pumping what’s left of our nation’s petroleum into the automobiles their fathers built—men skilled in an extinct trade. Still, it is this useless aptitude that separates them from us: they are masculine in a way we have never been. This is what scares us about our desire to hurt this “Nate Vanderveen,” to knock his head against walls of brick, to fling him from the tip of the pier and let him drown among the rocks. It is a masculine desire; we are unaccustomed to such masculinity. We distrust it, decide to study it before acting. We will follow “Nate” and make note of his patterns so that when we are ready to waylay and attack him we will know where and when he will be alone. Whatever we do, we do not want to be caught.
The boy comes slouching out of the high school, carrying no backpack of homework, having likely left it behind in his locker, indifferent to completing it. He makes a vile gesture at someone in the window of a bus, ducks between the buses, hops onto the stone fence that separates the school from the road and walks along it, as if along a tightrope, toward our village’s downtown. I make note on a pad of paper: “FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 26 departs school at 2:37 p.m. walks into town via fence.” I make an X on our map of the village and mark the time the boy was sighted at this spot. The buses caravan out of the parking lot; the boy pauses on the fence to extend the same vile gesture at each of them, moving along again once they’ve passed.
“The kimlee prowls,” Kenneth says, twisting the key in the ignition, “unaware his kimloo prowls the same streets.” He shifts the truck into drive. It sputters away from the curb. We ride.
The bulk of the words I write—nostalgian, unvoy, northsong, hoggle—are works of fancy, unrelated to my experiences. As other lexicographers at my publisher sometimes ask to read my work, I often avoid writing words that are personal. The most notable exception to this was impsexual, which I wrote only after many years of trying to define my own sexuality. None of the existent words for orientation represented my own: in high school I felt no heterosexual lust for the breasts and hips of the girls, no homosexual lust for the arms and butts of the boys, felt therefore no bisexual or pansexual or poly. Asexual was perhaps nearest to what I was, but still imprecise, for although I felt no lust for girls or boys or anything between, I did feel lust. The lust I felt, however, and feel, was for some nameless, indescribable thing, something that I have never seen and that I am now convinced may not exist. It was not zoophilia—I felt no lust for squirrels, dogs, the horses grazing near our tian’s cottage—nor paraphilia—I felt no lust for teddy bears, shoes, trees. My lust was for something human—some sort of human that perhaps had once existed or might one day evolve but in the twenty-first century was a nonentity.
I did not notice anything was amiss until Kenneth, four years my younger, began masturbating at night in the bunk beneath me, thinking I was asleep. That first night, hearing his mattress creaking on its springs, feeling the frame of our bed wobbling, I realized that whatever thoughts Kenneth was thinking were thoughts I should have had years ago, if those thoughts were ever going to come. I lay as still as possible but felt so uncomfortable about what Kenneth was doing that I began oozing sweat, the fabric of my pajamas becoming damp at the armpits, the chest, the groin. I didn’t know how to think like Kenneth was thinking, so instead I thought of a problem my calculus teacher had given me at the blackboard earlier that day, a problem I had been unable to solve. I thought of the problem until Kenneth had finished, until Kenneth had slipped off his mattress and crept from our room, until Kenneth had slurped mouthfuls of water from the bathroom faucet, thumped back onto his mattress below me and wrapped himself into his sheets and fallen asleep, and still I had no answer.
I published impsexual in our medical dictionary, a noun I defined as “someone who sexually desires a nonentity (or nonentities).” I meant imp- to suggest impossible, to denote an unworkable desire. It was only after publishing the word that I realized that imp- more likely suggested imp, and therefore denoted a desire for fictional creatures.
When Kenneth was in high school he was outspoken about the disgust he felt toward our principal, who was rumored to be homosexual. So I did not tell Kenneth about my own orientation, for fear it would evoke even more disgust than that. When I did tell Kenneth—only after we had both moved away from our village and back again, only after Kenneth had been divorced twice, only after I had published impsexual and been paid for it—Kenneth told me that a dead language he had once studied, from a peninsular nation on the other side of the planet, had had such a word.
“Kawa-mashka,” Kenneth said. “It meant sexual desire for something that doesn’t exist. See, you aren’t that original.”
It was then that I realized that, although I lived alone and had always lived alone and had never loved another human, I had never been alone entirely. Others had felt this lust that I felt, this unworkable desire, and had lived and died with it centuries ago or had not yet been born.
Except for afternoons that Kenneth has faculty meetings, we trail the boy every weekday until 6:10 PM, when we drive back to the cottage to await the arrival of the extracurricular bus bringing Emma from rehearsal and Christopher from training. Our method is one of patience. Kenneth parks our pickup near wherever “Nate” chooses to prowl; I take what notes I can. As a rule we do not leave the pickup. When the boy disappears into a shop or the arcade, we do not follow. In the pickup we are simply two brothers in an automobile: we are doing nothing wrong. Kenneth grades papers. I revise mirage words for my next deadline. We stay in the truck, and we wait. The boy knows our faces, whose tians we are. We do not want to alert him to our plot.
The exception to this comes several weeks after our study of “Nate Vanderveen” has begun. Our pickup is parked downtown, a single street lined by squat shops with weatherboard siding and shingled roofs. “Nate” is rooting through a dumpster behind the bookstore, a new but not entirely unexpected behavior. Kenneth wears gray slacks from teaching, black suspenders over a blue oxford; he naps, slumped back, hands propped on his stomach. I wear a vest from the office; I’ve just noted “MONDAY OCTOBER 13 roots through bookstore dumpster 4:17 p.m.” on the pad of paper, consulting my pocket watch before logging the official time.
When I see it happening, I try to wake Kenneth because I don’t know what to do.
“Kenneth,” I whisper. “Kenneth Kenneth Kenneth.” Kenneth blinks awake, scratches at his stubble, falls asleep again. I elbow him. “Kenneth, one of us needs to get out of the truck.”
Kenneth blinks awake again, says, “We aren’t—” but then looks through the window and sees it too: our nephew tiptoeing along the bookstore toward the dumpster beyond, muttering something to himself, wielding his fully assembled clarinet like a sword. “Nate” is still headfirst in the dumpster, his legs wiggling as if he’s falling and looking for somewhere to land. Kenneth says, “Is that—?” and I say, “Yes,” and then Kenneth is out of the truck and running after our nephew, hissing, “Christopher! Dammit, Christopher!” Christopher is crouched near the gutter at the rear of the bookstore, peeking at “Nate” in the dumpster, but when Christopher hears his name he turns, his eyes growing wide, then wider, looking like he’s either about to cry or to crotch Kenneth with his clarinet.
Kenneth gestures for Christopher to come to the truck. Christopher looks at me in the truck, then at “Nate” in the dumpster, and shakes his head. He’s not going to come. Kenneth creeps closer. Christopher hesitates. Kenneth creeps closer still, snatches the clarinet, throws Christopher over a shoulder, comes lurching back to the truck.
Kenneth shoves Christopher between us in the cab, shuts the door, relocks it.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at band?” Kenneth says.
Christopher scowls at the dashboard. “Nate Vanderveen spit on Emma again today at lunch,” Christopher says. “So I took the day off from band to fight him.”
We stare at Christopher like he’s a word with a new definition. This is a boy who likes to play with the plastic dolls his sister keeps boxed in the basement, a boy we once found sitting on a tree stump in the woods singing a song he had written about “handsome elves” and the “purplish fairy potions they keep on their shelves.” He is even skinnier than we were at his age and has three freckles on his nose, which, as far as we can tell, outnumber his friends.
“With a clarinet?” I say.
“He’s two years older than you, you idiot,” Kenneth says. “He’s the sort of kid who plays with knives, not his sister’s ballet slippers.”
“Kenneth—” I say, feeling othery for Christopher. Kenneth is in the habit of saying things he regrets, which is why he also is in the habit of getting divorced.
But Kenneth says, “He would’ve sent you to the hospital. What did you think you were doing, trying to jump a goon like that?”
In the eighteenth century, a boy of Christopher’s size would likely have already succumbed to some minor illness—measles, influenza, whooping cough—but it is the twenty-first century, and we have paid for the necessary vaccines to defend Christopher’s spindly body. In the eighteenth century, Christopher would also have been blind, and thus even if he had outlived his various illnesses probably would have had his fingers or an arm wrenched off by the gears of some machine in whatever factory he was working in and afterward would have lived as a beggar before starving in the snow and the shit of some gutter, but it is the twenty-first century, and we have bought him eyeglasses so he can see. If Kenneth is angry with Christopher, it’s because we’ve just caught him out seeking an untimely death when we’ve been working so carefully to prevent one.
“I don’t care what he would have done,” Christopher says. “He gave Emma the nickname ‘Smelly,’ and now no one will talk to her or sit by her or call her her real name.”
Kenneth starts the truck, just as “Nate” squirms backward from the dumpster, clutching a mouse by the tail. The boy lifts the mouse, squinting as it sways back and forth, the mouse scrabbling at the boy’s nose. We pull away from the curb, sputtering toward the lake. The trees in our state already have gone from green to gold, from gold to red, the leaves starving, growing season over. Wind from the lake thuds through their branches, knocking leaves adrift.
“And what do you mean, aren’t I supposed to be at band?” Christopher says. “What were you doing there? Aren’t you supposed to be working?”
“It doesn’t matter why we were there,” Kenneth says.
Christopher scowls at the dashboard. I stare at the paint-chipped cottages planted along the shore, the lopsided sheds, the sailboats knocking across the waves. Christopher mutters, “And I don’t play with her ballet slippers,” even though he knows that we know that he does.
One of Kenneth’s dead languages has a series of words for human demeanor: the word that Kenneth says describes my own personal mien is weyrey. Best translated, weyrey means “demeanor-of-invisibility”; Kenneth says the reason I was ignored instead of bullied when we were younger is that I have an aura of insignificance. I often think of us as a “we,” but Kenneth prefers obsessing over the ways in which we are a “you and me.”
“You’re the opposite of the guy who, when he walks into a room, everyone drops whatever they’re doing to watch him, wishing they could know him,” Kenneth said. “When you walk into a room, even people who aren’t doing anything don’t bother to watch you. They’d rather keep doing their nothing.”
This is one of the things Kenneth has regretted saying. He later told me he did, although he still thought weyrey was my mien.
“It isn’t because you’re quiet,” Kenneth said. “Talkative people can be weyrey too. People who think they’re social.”
Kenneth says his own mien is nipfay, which best translated means “irritant-demeanor.” When we were younger Kenneth was as quiet as I was, wore the same secondhand jeans and secondhand sweaters, but while I was ignored, Kenneth was bullied by everyone.
“You walk into a room and nobody notices you,” Kenneth said. “I walk into a room, and even if I don’t say a word or even look at anyone, everyone gets this feeling that they’d hate me if they knew me. They’re irritated by my very existence.”
As his older brother, I should have been the one to defend him from the boys who emptied his backpack out the windows of our bus—his sci-fi books skittering under the railing of the bridge, winging into the creek—the boys who broke into his locker and peed in his gym shoes, the boys who bloodied his nose with their fists. But I was more afraid than Kenneth was. When boys would shove Kenneth at the bus stop, I would pretend not to notice, stand with a book near enough my face to smell the pages. So instead, Kenneth went to our tian, begged him for help.
“So hit them back,” our tian said, a pair of nails bobbing between his teeth as he talked and pressed a measuring tape against the window frame with his thumbs. Our sister stood nearby holding a hammer. “I’m not going to fight your fights,” our tian said.
The next week, a boy in Kenneth’s grade was throwing sticks at Kenneth when our sister, two years Kenneth’s younger and six years mine, tripped the boy and kneed him in the mouth. The boy rode to school with a mouthful of blood and didn’t say a word to Kenneth for months. Kenneth likewise went months without speaking to our sister, furious she had fought a boy he had been too afraid to. In the state in which we live, a boy can grow into a man only if he is unafraid to hurt another boy with his hands. A boy who is afraid to hurt other boys cannot grow into a man; he becomes something else, something neither boy nor man that we have no word for.
This is why Kenneth feels so guilty about what this “Nate” has done to Emma; Kenneth believes that if our sister were here, she would never have allowed this to happen.
In the same way that a trauma can leave someone with a physical impairment—a limp, a sightless eye, a stump for an arm—a trauma can also leave someone with an emotional impairment. I believe Kenneth has several. One of my first publications was hurden, a noun I defined as “a permanent emotional impairment.” When our tian was forty-something, a half-built engine had tipped off a conveyor belt and splintered the bones in his foot. Even after our tian retired, his walk was still marked by a limp. Kenneth’s limp is not a physical one—not a limp of the feet—but still, he is marked by it. Before, he’d had one wife or another to fight for him as our sister had—to bully the mechanics and the roofers and the convenience store cashiers who tried to cheat him, to bully the colleagues who snubbed or belittled him. But now Kenneth is Kenneth alone. He wants to believe he is capable of defending Emma in a way he has never been capable of defending himself. But a hurden cannot be undone—by definition, it is a thing of permanence.
I was uneasy publishing a word based on Kenneth’s suffering. But it is vital that my words seem authentic. Plagiarists will skip a word that is an obvious fiction. My words must seem as if they could serve some purpose in the English language that no other word is capable of serving. Those are the words that plagiarists will copy. When the mirage seems solid.
The boy has no patterns, lives by a policy of whim. Kenneth scissors apart my notes, rearranges the notes by day of week, by time of day. Regardless of how the notes are arranged, the boy’s doings appear utterly arbitrary. By day of week:
“THURSDAY OCTOBER 9 eats multihued candy at 4:37 p.m. on bench outside of candy shop downtown.”
“THURSDAY OCTOBER 23 takes magazine from neighbor’s mailbox at 5:02 p.m., tears single page from magazine, deposits torn page in mailbox, departs with magazine.”
“THURSDAY OCTOBER 30 steals onto sailboat at 2:53 p.m. at wharf, beckons for friend (same as previous week, boy from arcade) to join him upon boat, friend refuses (seems afraid), boy clambers out of boat and shoves friend off dock, friend flounders, swims toward shallows, boy helps friend from water, depart together into town.”
“THURSDAY NOVEMBER 6 at 6:08 p.m. sets street on fire with aid of gasoline.”
By time of day:
“TUESDAY OCTOBER 14 attempts to take bicycle parked outside bookstore at 5:51 p.m., caught by other high schoolers (older), flees into alley with bloodied lip.”
“FRIDAY OCTOBER 17 behind high school at 5:50 p.m. hits small dog with stick.”
“WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 29 at 5:53 p.m. assists tian with automobile repair in driveway, yelled at by tian for kicking tires of automobile.”
“FRIDAY NOVEMBER 7, 5:51 p.m. instructs friend (same as previous week, boy from wharf) to stand outside antique shop with back to windows, boy disappears into alley toward rear of antique shop, reappears on roof of antique shop (friend unaware, still facing street) and pees onto friend from roof; friend curses boy, ducks into doorway of antique shop to avoid spray, boy laughs, zips pants, disappears from roof, reappears in alley; friend is accosted by owner of antique shop for standing in doorway; boy and friend curse the owner, spit on windows of antique shop, depart together toward arcade.”
The retired have already abandoned their cottages, driven from our nation’s freshwater peninsula to its saltwater, from our state to our nation’s southernmost, if they have the money to afford a townhouse for the winter. The retired without the money have holed up in their cottages with piles of blankets, waiting for the snowdrifts to settle in, the months and months of windows dark with frost. Our map becomes overrun with X’s, marking where and when the boy has been, which by now is almost everywhere. Christopher skips band again, follows us while we follow “Nate.” The truck is parked at the grocer, where “Nate” is inside either shopping or shoplifting, when Christopher appears at my window, his mittens on, one of his sister’s pink scarves tucked into his coat. Christopher knocks on my window. Kenneth blinks awake, says, “Huh—?” I lean on the crank until the window snaps through the frost. I roll it down.
“Why aren’t you at band?” Kenneth says.
“Because I’m following you,” Christopher says. “Are you following Nate Vanderveen?”
“No,” Kenneth says.
“Are you going to beat him up or something?” Christopher says. “You know you can’t beat up a kid.”
“He isn’t a kid,” Kenneth says. “He’s fourteen and psychopathic.”
“Fourteen is a kid,” Christopher says.
“We’re not going to hurt him,” I say. “Just scare him.”
“You better not tell Emma,” Christopher says. “Maybe you think that by beating him up you’ll be telling Emma you love her, but she’s not going to get that.”
“We caught you trying to do the same thing, you idiot,” Kenneth says.
“All I’m saying is, if you do it, don’t tell her, because she’s going to hate you for it,” Christopher says. “Mom knew how to tell Emma she loved her, which is just to say it. Also, if you’re going to beat him up, I want to help.”
Kenneth looks at me, says, “Vivixixi,” a word from one of his dead languages that best translated means “ill-advised plot.”
“I know you’re saying in your freak language that I can’t come, but I’m coming,” Christopher says. He hops into the truck, scrambles over me to sit between us. “Today he took Emma’s ribbon with Mom’s ring on it and flushed them down the toilet. Just tell me when you’re actually going to get out of the truck because I’m going to come, and I’m going to kill him.” He buckles his seatbelt. “But I’ve been hiding behind that streetlight watching you for probably an hour, and my feet are numb and my fingers are numb, and I don’t want to walk all the way home on frozen feet, so for now can you just drive me home?”
“No,” Kenneth says. “We’re waiting for the kimlee to come out of the store.”
“You two are the worst mothers,” Christopher mutters. He yanks his sister’s scarf to his eyes, huddles into himself, mittens tucked under his arms.
Christopher skips marching band daily, comes with us while we follow “Nate,” drinks from a mug of steaming cocoa while we drink from mugs of steaming tea. Before, our afternoons had been soundless: the noise outside the truck—the clanging of chimes hung from porch awnings, the yowling of the wind, the creaking of school buses’ worn brakes, the katzenjammer of “Nate” tossing his tian’s tools from the roof of his cottage onto the driveway below—muffled from where we sat inside the truck. Now our afternoons are full of endless chattering, this from a nephew who formerly behaved toward us as if we had abducted him from his mother rather than adopted him in her absence, a nephew who had not deemed us worthy of even the most mundane anecdotes regarding his day-to-day doings. For once he talks to us like tians instead of “not-parents”; less and less he references what our sister might have done, seeks our opinions instead.
We sit across from this “Nate’s” cottage, slumped low in the cab so it will appear empty if the boy happens to glance at the truck. The boy has crawled under his tian’s automobile, is doing something to it with a pair of metal shears. Kenneth and I like when the boy vandalizes his tian’s belongings—it is a game to guess when his tian will discover what the boy has been doing, thrilling to see what his tian will do. Sometimes his tian finds the tricks funny. Other times not.
“When can we actually fight him?” Christopher says.
“When we’re sure he’s alone and no one will see us,” Kenneth says.
“He’s alone right now,” Christopher says.
“His tian’s home,” I say. “That’s his automobile the boy is under.”
“Are you afraid of his dad?” Christopher says.
“No,” Kenneth says.
“His dad’s like three hundred pounds,” Christopher says. “If we beat up Nate, won’t his dad come after us?”
“We’ve already seen him come after this ‘Nate’ with a belt, a wheel wrench, a wooden paddle and what looked like the leg of a chair,” I say. “It’s not like we want to do anything to the boy that his tian hasn’t already done.”
“Just because he does it to Nate doesn’t mean he’ll like us doing it,” Christopher says.
Later this “Nate” bicycles to the wharf, the hood of his parka up. He rides down the pier making a vile gesture at each of the yellow signs that prohibit bicycling on the pier, and disappears behind the lighthouse. Kenneth and I hope the boy’s friend will come; sometimes they meet at the lighthouse. We like when they are together—it is intriguing to see what new cruelties the boy will perform upon his friend, moving to see them reunited again after the boy’s cruelties have ended. We park between rusted trucks with wooden motorboats on metal trailers.
“Would you rather stab Nate Vanderveen’s stomach, or kick Nate Vanderveen’s knees until they’re facing backward?” Christopher says.
“I am not answering that,” I say. “Kenneth, do not answer that.”
“I’d rather do the knees,” Christopher says. “Why can’t we fight him? He’s alone now.”
Kenneth gestures at the sailboats, the motorboats, the yachts moored along the docks.
“We can’t jump him here,” Kenneth says. “Someone might see us.”
“Okay,” Christopher says. “Would you rather punch his eyes until they’re swollen, or punch his ribs until they’re broken off and floating around inside?”
The boy rides back down the pier, pumping along the boardwalk toward downtown. We wait until he has disappeared; then Kenneth starts the truck. We find the boy’s bicycle dumped outside the gas station, “Nate” prowling the aisles inside. Kenneth and I hope the boy is getting candy: it is confusing to feel as we do, as if we would like to give him both candy and bruises. But we have never seen anyone as happy as this boy when he is chewing candy of some sort.
Instead he emerges empty-handed, gathers a handful of rocks from the alley between the arcade and the gas station, flattens himself against the wall. He peeks, flings a rock at a passing automobile, ducks back into the alley. A rock pings off the bumper of the next automobile; its brake lights flash red. The grizzled man inside the automobile throws his elbow over his seat, twisting around, scowling, looking for the source of the noise. The boy peeks, flings another rock. It cracks against the automobile’s rear window. The man curses, shifts, drives away. The boy peeks again, huffing into his cupped hands, warming them with his breath.
“I can’t understand why anyone would want to hurt people like the kimlee does,” Kenneth says.
“You want to hurt him,” Christopher says.
“I mean hurt someone like Emma, who hasn’t done anything to him,” Kenneth says.
“You hurt Emma,” Christopher says.
“He does not,” I say, feeling othery for Kenneth, knowing that Kenneth, like me, hates nothing more than seeing Emma unhappy.
“He does too,” Christopher says. “So do you. How about when you said our mom must have loved her boyfriend more than us if she left?”
“I never said that,” I say.
“We heard you,” Christopher says.
I have no memory of having said it, which makes this an instance of diffiction, a noun I defined as “a memory inconsistent with the shared reality of others’ memories; something nonfictional to an individual but fictional to the individual’s society.” Diffiction is my most successful work, in that since its publication it has appeared in new dictionaries by four separate publishers, each appearance prompting a lawsuit, those lawsuits far beyond profitable.
“If he said it, it was only because he believed it,” Kenneth says.
“That doesn’t mean Emma didn’t cry about it later,” Christopher says.
“Okay, so one time he hurt her feelings,” Kenneth says.
“You also told her not to get her hair cut any shorter than last time because if it were any shorter she’d look like a boy,” Christopher says to me, and then he says to Kenneth, “and you ate the chocolate that Emma bought with her own money, and you also told her that if she were an animal she’d be a mole.”
“She laughed when I said that,” Kenneth says.
“She wasn’t laughing about it later in her room,” Christopher says.
Our weakness is the same one it has always been—the books we read as children, the books we read still. We study “Nate” too long: see him following his tian around the yard, imitating his tian’s walk; see him ducking the balled-up homework flung at him from school buses; see him mocking a middle school boy holding his mother’s hand downtown; see him shoved against his garage by his tian after having punched his friend in the mouth, struggling as his tian growls at his friend to hit him back, shouting as his tian gestures at his friend that the boy will not be released until his friend has taken blood from his mouth as payback for the blood he took from his friend’s; see him peeing against the dumpster behind the bookstore after the owners of the bookstore and the antique shop and the candy shop have refused him their bathrooms; see him sitting alone on the rocks along the pier on days his friend doesn’t come, hood up, feeding the gulls from his hand. Kenneth and I suffer othery for this “Nate,” still hate him and try not to love him but love him still, unable to kill our aptitude for othery, the skill we learned as children—a skill our tian never learned, nor our sister, nor even this “Nate” himself.
Kenneth pretends nothing is wrong, insisting that when we come face-to-face with the boy he will fight him, with or without me. I say we should forget the boy, use our afternoons for other things, but Kenneth says our afternoons are for Emma, shames me into coming.
Kenneth pretends nothing is wrong, and I pretend nothing is wrong, and Christopher is utterly unaware that we have been changed—unaware until the afternoon “Nate” bothers to look at the truck and wonder who’s inside.
The truck is parked across from the boy’s cottage, its windows tinted with frost. Kenneth is napping under a blanket; I’m sipping tea from a mug; Christopher is spitting mouthfuls of fog, talking about what he plans on doing to this “Nate” once we finally have cornered him.
I feel the bed of the truck bob.
Christopher and I turn, peek through cracks in the frost, see the boy creeping along the bed, mouthfuls of fog twice the size of Christopher’s spilling from between his teeth.
“Kenneth,” I whisper, poking him, “start the truck!”
“Let’s get him let’s get him!” Christopher says, scrambling at the door.
I hit the lock, shove Christopher back. “Sit still,” I hiss at Christopher, then elbow Kenneth, whispering, “Kenneth!”
The boy hunches at the cab window, wiping at the frost with his hands, his palms melting patches of the window back to glass. He peeks in just as Kenneth blinks awake.
“You faggots?” the boy shouts, squinting at us.
Christopher scrambles at Kenneth’s door, shouting, “Let me out!” but I snatch his ankles and yank him back again. “Nate” hops onto the cab—we hear him skittering around above us—then leaps back onto the bed, slamming it with his boots, making the truck shudder. The boy hops around, shouting something too muffled for us to understand.
“How’d he find us?” Kenneth shouts.
“What do you mean, how’d he find us?” Christopher shouts, kicking at me, lunging at Kenneth’s door. “We’re parked outside his house! Let me out already!”
Kenneth looks at Christopher and looks at me and can’t pretend anymore. He grabs the collar of Christopher’s coat and shoves him back between us. Christopher hunches in his seat, holding his throat, hacking. Kenneth fumbles in his jacket for his keys.
The boy appears at Kenneth’s window wielding a branch the size of a bat. He swings at the door, the branch clanging against the frozen metal. “Fuck all of you!” the boy shouts, spittle flecking his parka. “You dogfucking faggots! Fuck you and fucking Emma and everyone in your fucking family! I’ll kill all of you fuckers!” The branch splinters against the door. The boy stoops at the fender, digging in the snow for another. Kenneth starts the truck.
“Run him over!” Christopher shouts.
But “Nate” is back, swinging at Kenneth’s window. “Get the fuck away from my house!” he shouts, his branch cracking against the glass. “Gutterfucks! Pixielovers! Buttsnobs! Go to hell and die there! Go to hell’s hell!”
The door to his cottage slams open; his tian stomps into the snow in gym shorts and shoeless, just as Kenneth shifts the truck and kicks at the gas. The tires spin in the snow, Kenneth’s window shatters, the truck lurches into the road. Christopher and I turn, watch through the cab window as the boy’s tian jerks the branch away from him while the boy shouts words at us we’re too far away to hear, words we wouldn’t understand even if we weren’t. The boy has a private language of his own; he has the words he needs to hate us. His tian quiets him with the branch, and then our truck dips with the road into a thicket of trees, and Christopher and I can’t see anything anymore and turn back around.
“Take me back,” Christopher says, but Kenneth says we won’t. Christopher calls us cowards, then doesn’t say another word to us until we’re home again.
Kenneth and I shake out of our jackets, hang them from the knobs along the door. Christopher keeps his coat zipped, clumps of snow melting on his shoulders.
“Even if you were afraid to get out of the car, you could have at least let me out,” Christopher says, crying now, his voice cracking. “I quit band for the chance to get back at him. I quit band, I lie to Emma about why I’m not on the bus anymore, we sit in your stupid truck every stupid day waiting for the perfect stupid opportunity, and then when it comes you let him say whatever he wants and then drive away after he’s finished.”
“Shouldn’t you be happy, you idiot?” Kenneth says. “We didn’t fight him, we aren’t going to fight him. Now Emma won’t have to hate us like you said she would.”
“Just because Emma wouldn’t have understood what it meant doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have meant it,” Christopher says.
He cracks the door, slips into the snow. We watch him hike into the trees. It is irrelevant what this “Nate” has done, what more he might do. We cannot think of him as a foe, a kimlee, anymore, can think of him only as someone with his own hurdens. Not just a “Nate” but an actual boy who would actually feel whatever we did to him. We are men who in the eighteenth century would have been called incapable, pitiful, spineless, men who in the twenty-first century are called those things still. We could not defend our niece from the evils of the world. We could not defend even those evils from other evils.
Kenneth won’t talk to me, instead carries a flattened box from the garage to the driveway, duct-tapes the box over the broken truck window, brushes snow from the cab. I stand at the kitchen window, sipping tea, waiting for the extracurricular bus to bring Emma home from the latest performance of her play. While I wait, I take an empty vase from the cabinet, pour water into it. Every night someone has been going to watch her; every night some boy has been bringing her flowers.
Named one of Variety‘s “10 Storytellers To Watch,” Matthew Baker is the author of the new story collection Why Visit America (Henry Holt), as well as Hybrid Creatures and the Edgar Award-nominated children’s novel If You Find This. His fiction appears in publications including The Paris Review, American Short Fiction, One Story, Electric Literature, Conjunctions, and Best Of The Net and twice in the Missouri Review. Born in the Great Lakes region of the United States, he currently lives in New York City.
SEE THE ISSUE
Jun 04 2021
“Bewilderness” by Karen Tucker
Adapted from her story “Anklewood,” which appeared in TMR 40:4, “Bewilderness” by Karen Tucker is excerpted from her novel of the same title, which was published this week by Catapult.
Dec 08 2020
“If You’re so Smart” by Tim Loc
“It’s been reported that 5 percent of students in the University of California system experience homelessness. For the state’s community college students, that number is a staggering 20 percent. The
Nov 17 2020
“Triumph” by Sahar Mustafah
In her richly textured story “Triumph,” Sahar Mustafah employs the setting of a women’s clinic in contemporary Palestine to address issues of gender, power, and domestic violence. The story appeared