“It is real,” he said, “but you can only do it on the Sega Genesis version. It’s down-forward-A-B-down, or something.” The south Jersey sun was hot, and the community pool was closed for repainting. “My cousin showed me.”
“You lie so bad.”
“He did,” Josh insisted, shrugging. “We can call him right now.”
Chris mopped his brow with the hem of his brother’s hand-me-down t-shirt, two sizes too big. “Call him up then.”
Word had it that Sub-Zero had a new finishing move where he shoves his hand up the other guy’s ass and a big frozen spike comes up out of his mouth. Chris said that was bullshit. Some kids were saying Mortal Kombat II was the bomb and you’d better get a copy before they ban it. Others said don’t bother; they were already working on Mortal Kombat 3. Neither of the boys owned a copy, and Josh was grounded from video games for saying his brother’s orthodontic headgear made him look like a retarded wide receiver.
They peeled their backsides off the end of the driveway, where gobs of spit collected in the gutter next to yesterday’s sunflower seeds and wads of Bubble Tape from the day before that. Across the street, Mrs. Biggio connected a fan sprinkler on the front lawn for the twins to run through. The old lady two doors down was clipping something in her garden with a big pair of scissors. Half the neighborhood was away at camp, and the beginning of sixth grade loomed like a prison sentence, just two weeks away.
Inside, a box fan wedged in the sliding glass door blew a cross breeze from the back porch over the kitchen, along with Josh’s mom’s cigarette smoke. The smell mixed with that of fabric softener and a cheap potpourri bowl on the table, which reminded Chris of his dad’s girlfriend’s apartment in Deming. Josh dialed something on the kitchen phone and quickly hung up. “Line’s busy,” he said.
“You’re full of it,” Chris said, “and you suck at fighting games.”
“I’ll beat you to a wet pulp.”
“You couldn’t beat me to a dry pulp.”
So they would settle it with a home run derby.
Windsor Hills had few baseball fields, but they could manage by marking home plate with a frisbee at the end of the driveway and batting outwards from the bottom of the cul-de-sac. Anything that cleared Poplar Avenue counted. Most of them did since they switched to playing with tennis balls. Mr. Rafferty had threatened to hammer-fist them for denting his siding the previous summer.
Josh’s mom watched the boys debating through the glass, and Chris watched her watch them.
Mrs. Finstein did not put out sandwiches or iced tea on summer afternoons, or ask Josh’s friends if they were getting good grades, or tell Chris to say hi to his mother. She did Pilates tapes in the basement all day as far as Chris could tell, even after Mr. Finstein came home from the office and cracked his first few wine coolers in front of the big-screen. She had said maybe ten words to Chris that summer. Her skin was bronze, and she swept billowing handfuls of long, highlighted hair into a blue elastic tie. If you were to pass closely by her, say to ask if you could take a Chips Ahoy from the jar, you might feel a glistening warmth come off her skin like electricity, smell a quick breath of lavender deodorant that was like the breeze at Cape May.
One time in third grade Chris saw her kiss Josh on the forehead when the boys were running out the door to play street hockey. He was struck dumb at the gesture. She didn’t seem like a mom.
“Garbage,” she said now, poking her head through the sliding glass door. She held a Virginia Slim at arm’s length, dark purple spandex hugging her waist.
“Mom,” Josh said.
“You heard me.” She shut the door.
“Ugh, hang on,” Josh said. He lifted a dripping Hefty sack from the kitchen bin. His diminutive arms struggled to get the bottom of the bag over the lip. Chris didn’t help. The other boy slung it over his back like a thief and sighed when he dropped it in the municipal can in the garage.
“She’s always making me do shit when my friends are over,” he said.
“You didn’t do your chores, man.”
“I didn’t have any chores. I got ’em all done on Thursday. She makes shit up. She just waited ’til you were here so she could start being a bitch to me.”
“Your mom’s not a bitch,” Chris said.
Josh rolled his eyes and took his brother’s tee ball bat. Chris found a can of tennis balls on a shelf. The afternoon rolled by like any in August. The boys each claimed they were throwing knuckleballs and that the other was batting easy-out pop flies.
“Did you hear about Mandy Hirsch and Scott?” Josh said, chasing an errant grounder that they agreed had gone foul.
“What about them?”
“I guess they’ve been going out for a while.”
Chris tapped imaginary dirt off his sneakers. “Going out. That doesn’t mean anything. It’s not like they’re dating.”
“Well he got to safety second with her.”
Josh wound up and let loose his best sinker. Chris whiffed it for the third strike and handed the bat over as they traded places. “What is safety second?” he said.
“It’s when you feel a girl’s tits through her shirt.”
“I don’t think that’s a thing,” Chris said, squeezing the tennis ball.
“It’s what he said, man,” said Josh, “and it’s fuckin’ further than I’ve ever gotten. But not for long.” He held the bat out from his groin and thrusted, and then slugged the next pitch into Mr. Rafferty’s gardenias.
“I give up,” said Chris. “Call it a draw.”
“Fuck that. That makes eight runs to seven. I win.”
“I’m going to go grab a popsicle.”
“Grab me one.”
The Finstein’s garage entered into the living room. To the left was a small mud room, and then a half-flight of steps that led to a raised kitchen and dining room. Chris took a second to fill his lungs with the cool and fragrant air inside, and heard Mrs. Finstein folding laundry in the mud room. He thought about saying hi—again—and instead strolled quickly past to the stairs.
“Yes?” he said, halfway up.
“You two aren’t running the hose out there, are you?”
“No, Mrs. Finstein. We’re just—”
“Who am I talking to?” she said. “You’re rude. Come here where I can see you.”
Chris sauntered back to the mud room door. “We’re just playing home run derby.”
“Here,” she said, pushing a basket of folded soccer uniforms across the floor with her foot. “Take that up and leave it on the landing when you go up.”
“You’d better not be hitting the neighbors’ houses.”
“We’re being careful.”
She regarded him over an outstretched bath towel, tucking her chin quickly to hold the middle while she folded the ends together. Her eyes were like little beads of dark glass. “Do you have water to drink out there?”
“We’ll be okay.”
“Take a Gatorade from the fridge. One for Josh, too.”
Mrs. Finstein exhaled, pushing back on the machine as if to stretch. “It’s hot outside,” she said, pressing a clean wash rag to her forehead and neck. “I want you boys to come inside every thirty minutes.”
“Tell Josh, too.”
She folded the rag and laid it on top of the washing machine, and then peeled her tank top off, revealing the glimmering, sun-golden bounty of flesh beneath. Before Chris could gasp, she did the same with her sports bra.
“And don’t be playing with the golf clubs,” she said. Her breasts caught stripes of sunlight through the venetian blinds. A bead of sweat ran between them like a raindrop. “Mr. Finstein can tell.”
Chris followed the line to her waist, where the spandex pressed the flesh and the modest swell of her belly curved over the lip of fabric.
“Do you hear me?” she said.
“Yeah. Yes.” Chris looked at his Nikes.
“Alright,” she said. “Every thirty minutes.”
She ran her thumbs across the waistband and began to slide off her workout pants. A fearsome current jolted through Chris’s body, and he bounded up the stairs to the bathroom.
The inside was wallpapered in swathes of fuchsia and pale blue brushstrokes. It looked to Chris like a prairie fire on some grotesque distant planet. He quickly locked the door and turned on the overhead fan.
What the fuck had he just seen? He wanted to see that, right? Wasn’t he supposed to?
He leaned over the sink, needing to do something with his body, but not sure what. He spit into it twice, like a boxer washing out the blood. His limbs felt stringy, and there was a quivering in his chest and throat like on standardized testing day.
Did this… count? Maybe it was sort of equal to first base? Maybe he should go back downstairs? A warm nausea overtook him, bending him double over the wadded tissues in the garbage basket. He spit and spit, but nothing more significant came out of him. With a fold of toilet paper he toweled off his lips, where the dappled black suggestion of a mustache had its first shoots.
He should try masturbating again, he decided. Before Mom gets home. He’d probably feel something this time. He saw in the mirror a very young boy.
Mrs. Finstein’s steps came up the stairs to somewhere near the bathroom door. Chris quietly closed the toilet and sat on it, watching the threshold gap at the door, waiting for the shadowy indication of two bronzed feet to pass.
On the wall opposite the toilet was a picture, a small reproduction of some old country painting in a white frame. Chris might have noticed it there before. An older girl, fourteen or fifteen, stood on a swing in a long dress adorned with blue bows. A younger girl watched her from beneath the same tree, and so did two men in suits and straw hats. One of them—you couldn’t see his face—leaned in very close to the girl on the swing, while she smiled meekly. He seemed to whisper something to her.
Get off that swing and go home, Chris thought.
“Jesus, where were you?” Josh said to him when he came back outside, gassing up the leaf blower to chase Mrs. Biggio’s cat. “And you didn’t even bring the popsicles.”
“Uh, sorry man,” Chris said. He climbed slowly to a seat on Mr. Finstein’s workbench and watched his legs dangle, raw-boned and fragile, from his cargo shorts. “I had to take a shit.”
“Must have been some shit,” said Josh, shaking his head. He hung the leaf blower back on its hook on the wall. “Oh, that reminds me. When Sub-Zero pulls his spike back out of the guy’s ass, it has a little bit of brown on the end of it. Like, just a few pixels.”
Ben Spies is a human living in Chicago. If you Google his name, you will find a champion motorcycle racer and the host of a cable TV hunting show. He is neither, but his fiction has appeared in The Madison Review, Curbside Splendor, Black Denim Lit, and his zine, No More Coffee.
Show Ben some love via PayPal at bspies4(at)gmail(dot)com.