Five Pieces of Puberty
We were dead for a long time before anyone found us. We curled onto our sides, holding in our intestines, tongues lolling. Luckily we’d decided to die with our eyes open, so we were able to look across at each other. It wasn’t as boring as you might think. Her pale stomach was covered with raw scratches from the branches we'd bulled through. Her shirt pulled tight against new breasts, and her hair was ringed with snarled leaves. It was a wonderful day to die—already spring, but with a bite. Ground damp seeped up through my denim jacket. I couldn't tell if she was looking at me, or if it was just me looking at her. When they found us, she got up, brushed herself off, and walked away like nothing had happened. Like dying together didn’t bring us any closer. Like it was just pretend.
People talked about the girl with the bat in her hair, but I never saw her. I learned not to trust other people right away. In my neighborhood there was a girl who grew too big for her body. She looked thirty five, but she was only twelve. She was like a big bird of prey with frizzy black hair, and, maybe out of frustration, she took to smashing boys’ heads in with rocks. She got my good friend Willie, just next door. She liked to throw the rocks in great parabolas, which was okay because you could run away from them. But other times she'd just clobber you with a rock in her fist, and it would mean stitches and bleeding and someone's mother going hysterical. It seemed like one of the normal perils of life back then. I'd look for the girl with the bat in her hair every night at dusk when we'd throw stones over the power lines, the bats fluttering around like things attached to strings. I never once saw her. Sometimes I'd run across the street with my hands covering my hair anyway, shrieking.
When I was old enough to have a stomach I patted it late at night. Things got sticky down there. Pearly strings of light. I thought I could glow but I couldn’t. It was being feverish without being able to call my mother and have her run her hand across my forehead. I became like a creature of the deep, floating in a heavy saline solution. Things got dark and musty.
Playing games with blooming genitalia. Taking a stalk in hand. Breathing. Subterranean, damp, pink. We told jokes we didn’t understand. She laced on an old pair of brown boxing gloves, wore a thin white t-shirt and we rolled over each other on concrete, the smell of someone else’s house in our nostrils. Spread cheeks. An inserted finger. We spent a lot of time in basements. Nobody wondered where we were. It was all innocent until it wasn’t anymore and then we had no name for it.
Girls played with my hair. They clamped barrettes and ran special brushes down and across. They smeared my mouth with maroon and blood colors. I was alone, with them but not with them. They were girls; I was an experiment. They drew close to me, parts of their bodies touching parts of my body. The wind outside carried leaves that were raw and dead and wet and slapped against trees, lifting reluctantly, like they were hooked on fishing wires. Nobody would see us because we were invisible to everyone. When a brother or a cousin did come around the side of the house the girls walked away laughing, their feet in short socks, turning their hips in ways mine wouldn’t go. A sneer, the wind, something tensed and swinging.
At first the snake was dead. It was a thick, black, unmoving line on the ice. But when the seagull's beak got closer, David was surprised to see the snake contract, balling up like someone's defective heart or like a spastic hand, then stretch forward. The seagull moved awkwardly, not like a hunter at all. David stopped walking to watch them, twenty feet below on the river, near the dock where the skullers put in the spring and summer. The wind blew straight into his face and his nose ran.
The seagull flew up about five feet, its wings a puff of white, the snake writhing in its talons. It hovered a moment before the snake twisted out of its grip and dropped. The snake couldn't find traction on the ice, so it slipped and skittered, panicked now. Then it slid, splashless, into the black water that rimmed the river. The seagull stood for several seconds longer, staring at the black space. Then it flew off, its wingbeats slow and silent, and David walked on.
At the soup place, an old man played a Chopin prelude falteringly. It had started snowing outside, and the townspeople who had ventured out made their way into the warmth of the restaurant. The windows steamed. There was the strong, variegated smell of seven kinds of soup-- leek, chili, tomato. The workers behind the cafeteria-style counter were young kids wearing old t-shirts that showed their mostly tribal tattoos.
The old man had been playing the same prelude for an hour, and no one had complained, but now he stopped, closed the lid of the piano and walked outside. His clothes hung from him as if they belonged to a person two times his size. The pair of gray work boots he wore had conformed to the shape of his splayed feet.
The sidewalks were iced over. The storefronts were lit but mostly empty. Only the book store, the toy store, and the soup place beside the frozen river remained open. County trucks rumbled past with orange plows raised. The snow picked up and was blown into David's face, cold needles pricking his skin.
Nothing had changed in the three weeks since David had been in the town. A man in a black trenchcoat walked past, shielding his face with a black umbrella. The old man who played Chopin at the soup place stopped David inside the doorway of what had once been a bank and was now a Japanese restaurant, closed. David gave the old man a light and they stood together for a while, watching the street.
A truck drove past with its plow lowered, scraping at the road. Three seagulls fought the wind, appearing stationary.
"I was hoping you'd be there," David said.
The old man shrugged. "Buy me a coffee?"
David nodded. The old man breathed heavy through his mouth and walked two steps behind David, who slowed to let him catch up.
The man's hands were palsied, almost twice as big as David's, and hooked. The fingernails were thick and yellow.
A table of students from the prep school huddled with their heads nearly touching. There were two black girls, a West Indian, a few whites. They all sounded the same when they laughed. An old woman sat in a corner reading a paperback.
The old man played Chopin again.
When he walked out, people watched him. It was a full born storm now. He slipped a little on the ice and proceeded in a steady, cautious shuffle. David watched him from out of the window of the soup place.
Then David got up and followed the old man.
About a mile away from the center of town, they walked through the freshly-plowed lanes of a gas station. A black man sat inside a glass cube on a white plastic chair blowing on his fingers. The black man raised his hand and the old man raised his hand back, while David just walked by.
They walked around the edge of a failing apartment building, toward the train tracks. A train had passed sometime in the last hour, so the rails shone black. The old man took a seat under an overpass.
Back in town the toy store and the book store were both closing, lights switching off in the false dusk. On the river a few of the first fishing sheds had been hauled onto the ice. Two men with square heads gripped ropes over their shoulders, pushing into the wind. The shed came after them on the ice.
In the park beside the river a small group of seagulls stood in the driving snow, becoming invisible.
David made his way back to his brother's house, then walked past it and around the block before coming back again. He took the shovel out of the decrepit shed next to his brother's house. The shed had originally been a smokehouse. The outline of the old structure was still encased in the new structure. The old shingled roof was now obsolete inside.
David shoveled the inch and a half of new snow, then he climbed up to the storage space in the shed, where there was nothing but broken glass and inactive bee hives the size of bowling balls. He sat on the edge, dangling his legs.
David's brother and his brother's wife were inside the house listening to Miles Davis. They danced slowly in the living room without any lights on.
Ten tall paper bags of leaves were lined up inside the shed, waiting for David's brother to take them to the landfill. The leaves inside the bags were brittle. Behind the door David found an old poster of some kind. Through black spots of mold he saw a burning building and fire men holding a round tarp. Whoever was falling was completely covered in mold, a black splotch in the whitish air.
The old man had been playing Chopin every day for months. David's brother, who owned the soup place, instructed his workers to give the old man a daily cup of soup, as payment.
One day the old man didn't come back.
David packed the bag he'd been keeping in what had once been his nephew's closet. The room was small, with sloping ceilings, a blue carpet, a single window through which he could see the roof of the decrepit outbuilding.
The new snow had frozen into a crust two inches thick over the old fallen snow. Children jumped on it without breaking through.
David walked to the bus stop near the prep school, where a handful of students were waiting to be taken into the city. He put his bag down and waited with them.
Jamey Gallagher lives in New Jersey