Fiction | March 01, 2002

It feels right naming people for what they are—brigands, some of them, pussies, most of them—even though I sometimes get my ass whipped for naming people after things when I don’t quite know what they are. Johnjohn is my best friend. I say to Johnjohn’s mom what a dildo-nose she is, and the next thing I know Pa’s come and got me and is pretending to be nice in front of Johnjohn and his mom before taking me home and whipping my ass. Dildo, it turns out, is a bad word, but I swear to god I thought it was a kind of prehistoric bird.

When Pa grounds me I go to Mama and say, Mama, I thought I’d go outside today, but she’s on to me and says, Tell me a story instead. I tell her, No, Mama, I need to go outside. I’ll tell a story later—at supper with my father and my sister. She says, You mean my husband and my daughter? You may go outdoors only after you’ve told me a story.

I don’t have one today, I say.

She says, Impossible.

Possible, Mama, and true.

She says, What are you thinking about right now? And I get to thinking about a hero who will do what 1 need him to do—help me get outdoors. I tell her I have a new kind of hero, and she says, I knew you had a story, but please, Son, not another hero. Tell me a true story, one about yourself. I say I don’t have a story about myself, which gives her her worried look. There’s no need to worry, I tell her, and she gives in and asks, What’s the hero’s name?

Sidney, I say.

And what does Sidney have to do with you? She is let down when I say nothing. So what’s so special about Sidney? she has the guts to say. I give her the scoop because she’s my mama and because I want to go outdoors. He’s not just plain old Sidney, that’s for sure. He’s Sir Sidney Swordnose because his nose is so razor sharp he keeps it in his scabbard, unless of course he needs it to cut up brigands.

Yesterday you were a brigand, Mama points out, and now you have a hero who would cut one up. I wasn’t a brigand, I explain to her, but an undercover brigand, and she says, That makes perfect sense.

This Sir Sidney, she doesn’t know about him, so I tell her. For starters, he’s known for fancy footwork. He lives in the snow and in the trees. He is a tree when he needs to be, but mostly a swashbuckler, more expert at ambushing and slicing with his nose than any swashbuckler with a regular old sword.

How charming, says Mama.

You see, I tell her, Sir Sidney can’t speak or sing or hardly breathe in peacetime because his scabbard clogs his nostrils, but he has to wear it all the time so that he doesn’t accidentally cut a friend.

Sir Sidney can’t talk or sing? asks Mama.

Not without cutting a friend, I repeat. He could talk and sing in war, but who has time for talking and singing when there’s fighting to do? Besides, it’s pax romana in the Land of Sneed, where Sir Sidney Swordnose comes from, so he hasn’t said a word in two hundred years, and he hasn’t killed anybody.

And the moral of the story is? Mama wants to know.

I tell the truth: I don’t know if there is one.

In that case, she says, you can go outside, but not to play. You’re behind in your collections, she reminds me. I deliver the Washington Post to all the citizens of Sneed, but when it comes collection time I hate to ask them for money. It’s seven dollars for a month of dailies and Sundays, but seven is a lot, so I put off asking until it’s fourteen, and then it’s too much to ask for any of it. I hate collecting and end up paying for the mean citizens out of my own pocket because I’m scared to ask them for the money they owe.

Mama hands me my collection book and tells me to go around until I’ve collected all the money I’m owed. She tells me to keep my mind open for a story about myself for once, a story, say, about my progress in arithmetic, because that’s what I’ll be doing when I get home.

Wintertimes I ride a sled. Summertimes it’s a grass catcher at two dollars a mow. It’s wintertime now, and I deliver the Washington Post in the snow early in the morning. It was deeper this morning than I’ve ever seen it be. The bundling, rubber-banding and bagging take twice as long in two feet of snow that wasn’t there the day before. On mornings like this one, the first footprints in Sneed are me. They’re followed by Johnjohn’s. He and I are best friends. We both like Becky, which is hard because Becky likes me more than she likes him, and he thinks it’s the other way around. She likes me best because I have the paper route. He pretends he wouldn’t have a paper route if it was the last job in all of Sneed.

I’m not outdoors five minutes when he comes along the road on his way to see Becky.

Can I go too? I ask.

Get lost, he says. You’re not invited. No fowlmouths allowed.

If I’m a fowlmouth then what are you? I ask.

He says get lost again. I call him a pussy and a faggot, which anyone’ll tell you he is, except for me now because after I get done calling him what he is, he stuffs my shirt with snow and whips my ass and puts my face in the mud and gravel until I almost suffocate. I guess a pussy and a faggot wouldn’t of whipped me. I tell him so as an apology so he won’t go on harming me, and he tells me damn straight, I wouldn’t know a pussy if I had one in my mouth or a faggot if he had me by my pecker because I’d be too busy enjoying myself. Zippy, my German shepherd, likes to chase squirrels all day long, and on the day before I got whipped by Johnjohn, Zippy caught a squirrel between his teeth but instead of shaking it dead set it down softly and ran away like he was a squirrel and not a guard dog. I tell Johnjohn this as a way of being best friends again.

He says he and Becky are going on a trip, and there’s only enough for two. I say how about just me and you, and he says, Nope, that Becky had first dibs. Plus I’m not old enough yet. Even though Becky and Johnjohn are already in junior high together, I say that I’m plenty old enough, and where are they going on their trip anyway? He says Quiet River. Quiet River in the wintertime is very quiet because the frogs go south and the water moccasins live under the mud and ice. It’s the only river in all of Sneed, but that’s not going on a trip in my book because the two of us—and Becky when girls are allowed—go to Quiet River almost every day. I tell him that it’s a free country and that I happened to be on my way to Quiet River anyway, before I had any idea he was going there with Becky. I warn him that Becky will be mad when she finds out he didn’t invite me. It will just have to be the three of us, I tell him. I half want him to try and stop me from coming so Becky will see what a pussy he is and not like him once and for all. Instead he tells me that if I go to Quiet River, he and Becky will go somewhere else where I can’t follow them. He tells me that Becky doesn’t want me around and leaves me standing on the icy street with his pack of lies, my scraped-up nose, my collection book and my scarf.

I don’t like to cry, but I sometimes do. I hate Johnjohn more than ever right now and tell myself he’s got it coming. I cry a little since no one’s around to see me. I sink down in the snow and count the ways of getting even. I’ve got to tell Becky all he’s done. She’ll hate him when she hears. I know she will. She’s the wisest girl I know. She’s the Queen of Sneed to me. I’d give my balls to kiss her. When she’s Queen she isn’t named Becky, though, but Orleanas. When she’s Orleanas I’m her prince. The prince’s name is Roam, and roaming I go, slashing at breastplates and carving Adam’s apples out. As her prince I decide to bring Orleanas some treasure and head into the cul-de-sac to make a collection or two. The first hamlet is at the mouth of the cul-de-sac and belongs to Bersano the Knavel. I hate him and he hates me because I don’t get his paper to him early enough in the morning, before he leaves the kingdom. I go straight over in the name of Orleanas. She makes me brave. Not that I couldn’t kill him, but I’m relieved that it’s only his wench who’s home. She mistakes me for a ghost because the word along the lane is that I got killed.

I heard the paperboy drowned, she says. That’s the rumor.

I don’t know, I say. Because I don’t. This is the first I’ve heard of my death. She says the whole street will be happy to see me and she stays happy even when I tell her it will be twenty-one dollars please. I tell her that she isn’t a wench after all, or a finch, and she pretends not to hear me but talks of the talk of my death and gives me my money. I leave her happy and go out into the snow. Twenty-five dollars—she gave me four extra I think for being alive—and the news of my death is all the reason I need to join up with Becky and Johnjohn on their Quiet River trip. I’m not dead but undead. I am Sir Sidney Swordnose. I am Roam. I cross yard after yard. I don’t like to cry, but I sometimes do. What my death means most to me is that if it wasn’t me it had to be somebody.

The way down to Quiet River is to go down between two houses at the end of the cul-de-sac and into the woods past where the houses end. There’s a cowboy fence with barbwire that will cut you if you don’t know where the hole is, and after the fence there’s brilliant red horses that are even more brilliant standing out against the snow. My scarf gets stuck on the barbwire. When I get myself unstuck I start running. The blue air smells like smoke. I have Orleanas’ green money in a ball in my fist. My fist is a mitten. I stop to look in on the horses, but they’re not home. It’s a mystery. Sometimes I have a chat with the missing horses—especially when the questions I have are big ones—and I wonder if they heard it too that I wasn’t living anymore. The owner of the horses also owns a sleigh, and I want to someday ask him for a ride so that we can go looking for a lion and eat Turkish delight. The horses aren’t around, and I don’t have time to look for them if I’m going to get to Quiet River before Orleanas is tricked by the snuffer. If the horses and their owner were here, I’d give him some of my money to take me in the sleigh so I’d get to Quiet River quicker.

I climb through the hole in the cowboy fence on the other side of where the horses live and run deep into the woods. The woods are dark even though the snow makes the forest lighter. It’s all quiet except for the water on the shore and the laughter of Orleanas. I’d know her laugh in a dark alley. I break from the trees and leap onto the stony beach that goes along the river as if I were a horse—or on horseback. I find Johnjohn and Becky rolling on the ice and stones. They’re rolling around like they’re in a wrestling match and laughing like they’ve just heard the funniest story. I want to tumble with them. I want to know what’s so funny. They look straight at me and, as if I’m a ghost, laugh some more and go on with their tickling and tumbling. It’s hard to look, the way they’re tangled up. Becky has her parka on and her trousers, but her legs are wrapped around Johnjohn like they’re humping. Her hair’s in her face and her wild blue eyes are wilder than ever. She’s laughing. I turn away and look down the river. All I can see is my green money blowing around and floating on the water and the mist in the branches down at the bend. I go back to the woods and return with a big stick, big enough for hitting.

Whatcha got there? Johnjohn asks me. Becky’s curled up in a ball beside him, and to save her life she cant stop laughing. Tell him to get his ass home, she says. Tell him we’re tripping.

A stick, I say. Obviously.

Dildo-nose has got a stick, he says. He takes Becky’s face in his hand and asks, Do you hear what I’m saying? and kisses her on the mouth. She puts her hand on his pants over his balls and laughs louder than I ever heard her laugh before. Who’s Dildo-nose? she wants to know. She’s turned into a blind girl. I’m right here. I see the spikes in my shadow in the snow. My hair is long and ragged like a barbarians. My eyes used to be like hers. They have the same color, but hers are redder now, and the more I look at them the more they look like bruises.

Roam here is Dildo-nose, he tells her. He forgets that the story about Orleanas and Roam is supposed to be just between me and him. He doesn’t know it yet that he’s about to get clobbered.

Who is Roam? asks Becky. She looks me in the eye with an expression like she’s never been happier in her whole life and she’s not any Becky I know; neither is she Orleanas or any girl I’d ever want to know. She laughs so hard there’s no laughter coming out of her, only her shaking shoulders—when things are the funniest she’s a silent laugher—and her mouth is open so wide I could put the stick inside it and she wouldn’t even notice. Johnjohn puts his finger in her mouth instead, and she closes her mouth around it and sucks it like a sucker. Then she pulls his finger out and says, Who’s Roam? I don’t know any Roam! and runs her tongue around her lips and growls like a tiger and bites Johnjohn on the chin. I grip the stick like it’s a Louisville slugger and walk over to where they’re sitting, and they look up at me, and on their faces smiles are a sickness. I’m shaking and crying, but crying in a way that they don’t know it.

Johnjohn lets up on the fun he’s having long enough to ask me if I understand what a Frank Answer is before he asks me a question. He’s serious as serious can be. He doubts I know how to be Frank. No joke, he says. Becky’s got her face buried in his side and is good for nothing but laughing. He asks me like he is the sphinx with a riddle, What do you call a pecker that isn’t a pecker but is something like a pecker that a girl puts in her pussy? He spits at the cold as he talks and tells me to say that one ten times fast, if I can.

I take a step back. Becky grabs at him as if she’s about to die of all the fun they’re having. I bash a rock with the stick. They look at me like they’ve forgotten whatever could be so funny. I see them swallowing. I bash the rock again and again until the stick breaks, then charge not at them the way I ought to, but toward the river to throw myself in. A million ice needles shoot into me over every inch of my skin. I’ve never felt it colder in my whole life, and I dig my way back, like a dog. My scarf is gone, and my parka’s heavier than armor, and their eyes are on me wide, and their mouths are open wider, and I run away from them into the dark woods, stomping into the snow where nobody ever walks because there’s no trail where I’m stomping, and it hits me that what that woman got done telling me not more than a half-hour ago is true, I’m a dead man. No sooner do I know this than I’m blowing like a ghost through the dark woods and the air that smells like smoke. The shadow of my flying body flies on the snow, pulled along by the shadows of the red horses gliding as quietly as ghosts over snow. I go past the stables and again through the woods and up the cul-de-sac, and by the time I get home, I’m sure my ears have snapped off like knockeddown icicles.

I find Mama in the kitchen and ask her if my ears are on me. She goes crazy at the look of me, but when we finally get ahold of ourselves she says that my ears are there, as well as my nose, toes and fingers. She strips me out of my armor, wraps me in a blanket and asks what in heavens name has happened. I thought I was dead, I say. I was almost sure of it. I swear that I’m sorry for going down to Quiet River, but I had to go because I had a feeling in my gut that something terrible would happen; this is the saddest day in my life because Becky is dead and Johnjohn too.

Nobody’s dead, she says, but I can tell by the way she says it that she already knows it’s true. I can tell that Pa knows too from the way he acts when he comes into the kitchen. Still, he pretends there’s no trouble, only that I’m wet to the point of danger. I tell them that someone killed Becky and Johnjohn. Someone drowned them in the river, and I tried to save them. Two killers, and once they had done the killings they must have fished the bodies out and hid themselves in the cold corpses so as to look like the Becky and the Johnjohn everybody used to know.

Mama listens to me carefully and takes it well. She promises to let Johnjohn’s and Becky’s parents know what’s happened and to notify the authorities. She says she will call them right after I’ve taken a bath—the call can wait. She insists on taking me straight upstairs before I catch pneumonia.

No way, I say. I’m not budging until I hear her make the call with my own ears. I scream at her that she has to call, it’s her duty, and she can see that I mean business. She goes to the phone and picks up the receiver. She doesn’t take her eyes off me the whole time she’s dialing. She lets it ring an extra long time and would probably let it ring longer if I wasn’t crying so loud that no one could hear even if they answered.

But I saw them with my own eyes, I say, and wipe snot off on the back of my hand. I saw them, I tell her. I swear. They were dead.

You thought you were dead, she reminds me, when really you’re warm at home.

But everybody thinks I drowned, I tell her. Everybody except the Bersanos!

She smooths down my hair and explains that they’ve mistaken me for somebody different.

But the paperboy drowned, I say.

It’s only a rumor, she says. There’s a big difference between a rumor and what really happened.

I wonder if she knows the boy they’re supposed to be thinking of. She doesn’t want to talk about him, though. All she wants to know about is how I fell in the river. Please, she says. Please tell me.

I fell in because of Orleanas, I say. When she asks me who Orleanas is, I tell her, She’s nobody.

You’re not going to tell me who Orleanas is?

I can’t, I try to explain. Not without cutting a friend.

You can at least tell me a little bit, she says. Enough to help me understand.

I don’t help her at first; I wait. The longer I wait the closer I feel to her. The closer I feel to her the more I need to dig deeper. The deeper I need to dig, the more I look forward to telling her everything, so she can tell everyone else, and all the people will know once and for all that I’m not the boy they’re thinking of, but somebody different.

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