Mom had been gone for more than a week on her supposed “trip to New York,” but I knew where she really was, less than four miles away at the mailman’s house. Mailwoman, actually, but that sounds awkward and anyway, Bobby Singer was as much a man as the next guy, but with tits. I knew Mom was there because Rocky Lloyd lived next door to Bobby Singer’s trailer, and he snuck over there sometimes. Bobby Singer had an outdoor shower and even though most guys would claim not to want to see Bobby Singer naked, tits or no tits, about half the women on this side of Hatchet County did—and not only did they like Bobby Singer, but they were all real fans of Bobby’s outdoor shower too.
I went over there once with Rocky, who I didn’t like because he was even more of a perv than normal and liked to burn frogs down by the pond. But sometimes, in the middle of summer things got so dead boring, boring so thick you could taste it in the back of your throat—and then hanging out with Rocky and spying on Bobby Singer’s outdoor shower suddenly didn’t seem so bad. Rocky snuck over like an Indian, walking heel to toe like they taught us one year in the free summer camp all the poor kids went to—Camp Little Frog, ironically—and then he hid behind some bushes and pulled out the binoculars he stole from his dad’s hunting gear. The day we went together, Bernice—from the Chevron on Maple Street—was in there soaping up. I knew Bernice because Mom got her gas at that Chevron—where it was two cents cheaper, which didn’t seem like much to me, but Mom said it all added up. That’s how she paid for her special trip to New York, by pinching pennies.
Afterwards, Rocky wanted to go down to the pond to burn frogs and I made up an excuse for why I had to go home, something lame about cleaning out the chicken coop. “Dude, you’re going to go home and whack it,” Rocky said, and I didn’t argue with him because at that point, as the only gay kid on the planet as far as I could tell, I would do anything to pretend I was just like Rocky, a perverted little psychopath who thought burning frogs and spying on naked lesbians was a real good time. Which just goes to show how bad it is to be gay.
When Rocky told me he saw my mother in Bobby Singer’s shower, we were in gym class. I was sitting out because Lance Wicket had just hit me in the gut and knocked the wind out of me during flag football, a supposedly non-contact sport. Rocky was sitting out because he’d called Terrance Garcia a flaming frog-lipped faggot and the coach was going to deal with him later. “Dude,” Rocky said, “I saw your mom in Bobby Singer’s shower.”
It took a minute for the words to sink in, as I had just finished vomiting from a combination of shame and diaphragm spasms. “My mom’s in New York,” I whispered, between convulsive breaths. At one-hundred and eighty pounds, Lance Wicket was the biggest thirteen-year-old in the school, and also the shortest. When Wicket hit, he hit hard and with purpose, and mostly he hit me.
“Bullshit, dude. Your mom is at Bobby Singer’s. I saw her tits and everything. You never told me she had a tattoo.”
As far as I could tell, Rocky was my neighbor because I needed someone who would force me to prove myself over and over again in various and horrific ways—that his proximity was no accident, but a challenge, an almost daily reminder of what I should be, but was not. “Let’s burn frogs!” “Let’s spy on naked women!” “Let’s set off this stick of dynamite in my uncle’s mailbox!” But spying on my naked mother in Bobby Singer’s shower crossed a line, and I could tell by the way Rocky was standing over me, his head cocked back, one heel dug deep into the grass, that he was expecting a reaction. This was my moment, I realized, when I could finally prove my manhood. Rocky was clearly sent by the heterosexual gods to force me into this position. I hated Rocky as fiercely as I wished to be him, with his manly zits and bulging arm muscles like little boulders, and his pure, unadulterated meanness. Rocky just admitted to spying on my mother naked in the shower, and if the situation was reversed, Rocky would already have been straddling me and pounding my head into the grass with no remorse. Instead, I went for the less obvious response, and burst into tears.
“Dude,” Rocky shook his head, “You’re more of a faggot than old frog lips over there. I don’t know about you, man, I really don’t. If I were you I’d burn that mother-fucking trailer to the ground.”
If I had known then what I came to know later—that is, the trajectory of our paths in life—I honestly can’t say I would have done anything differently. I already knew Rocky would go nowhere in life, that he would stay living in his parents’ run-down mobile home, that he’d be in and out of jail, that he’d develop a drinking problem as fantastic as any other drunk in our crappy little town. And yet, this knowledge did nothing to stop me from wiping the tears from my eyes, the vomit from my chin, and turning to Rocky’s leering face to say, “Let’s do it. Let’s burn that mother-fucking trailer. Let’s burn it to the ground.”
For the first time since our friendship of convenience began, Rocky’s face changed. His usual grimace of disgust shifted into a grin. “Yah, dude, I like the way you’re thinking. Let’s burn that whore can once and for all.”
Later, during math class, I rethought Rocky’s word choice. What did he mean by “whore can”? Was he referring to my mother being in the trailer, thereby making it a whore can? Or Bobby Singer—did her ownership make it a whore can? But then, as I struggled with a particularly difficult fraction, I decided that it didn’t really matter. That trailer was a whore can, no matter who was in it, and I was angry.
Rocky and I arranged to meet in the woods—next to the whore can. He was bringing the supplies. “I’ve got this shit covered,” he said, as we huddled behind the gym. “Just be there. I’ll need help if we’re going to do this thing right.” I felt a deep sense of excitement then, of belonging, a sort of hormonal, semi-erotic rush. Huddling behind the gym, hatching a diabolical plot to avenge my father’s honor (a true act of manliness if there ever was one) was enough to make me quiver. “I’ll be there,” I replied, in my huskiest possible voice, and when we high-fived beautifully, spontaneously, there was nothing awkward about it, no fumbling, just two buddies hatching a plan, and high-fiving their goodbyes. I’d never felt so decidedly heterosexual, and was too young to realize the irony that my mother, who had long assured me in gentle, hinting tones that she loved me no matter what, would be the one to drive me to this moment of pure masculinity.
“You know what?” Rocky said, as he clapped me on the shoulder hard enough to make me stumble forward, “You’re cooler than I thought.”
Back at home, Dad whistled as he worked on the kitchen. This was his surprise for my mother. “Let me tell you the facts, son,” my father had said, as we stood on the front porch and watched my mother pull away in a cloud of dust, the chickens squawking and dispersing in the Chevy’s wake. “The kitchen may look fine to you, and it may look fine to me, but to your mother, it looks like hell. So, guess what we’re going to do?”
My father laughed and clapped me on the back of the neck as if I had been joking. “We’re repainting it. That’s what you’ve got to do if you want to keep a woman, son. You’ve got to go that extra mile. Give them what they think they need, and they’ll stick around.”
Seeing my father there, in his paint-spattered overalls, rolling paint onto the ceiling, neck craned back, knowing what I now knew—that my mother was not in New York spending a week getting cultured in museums like she was supposed to be, but at Bobby Singer’s trailer getting cultured in something else entirely—made me feel queasy all over again.
“You OK, buddy? You look a little peaked.”
This was the kind of father I had, the kind who noticed when I was peaked, who used words like peaked, who let his wife take an expensive vacation all by herself because moms need that sometimes. The kind of father who repaints a kitchen just to make someone happy. Not like Rocky Lloyd’s father, or most of the fathers I knew, who drank and spat and hit their kids on the side of the head as a sign of affection. My father didn’t deserve this, he didn’t deserve Bobby Singer and her whore can, and even though Bobby Singer had never been anything but friendly to me, even paying for my ice cream once when we happened to be next to each other in line at Thrifty’s, I felt confident that if Bobby Singer burned to death in her whore can it would be deservedly so. Who knew how many lives she had ruined, how many families she had torn apart with her irresistible lesbian mojo. Surely, mine could not have been the first.
Sneaking out was easy. My father and I had a simple meal of boxed macaroni and cheese, and string beans from the garden, and then we both went to bed early. Me, claiming a stomachache, which was not a lie, and my father, exhausted from his day of painting. Once I could hear his snores drifting down the hall, I put on the darkest clothes I could find, and tiptoed out the back door, barefoot. Partway down the driveway, I slipped on my shoes, and ran, the dust spiraling out behind me so that I felt, for a moment, like Clark Kent. Rocky was already there when I arrived, dressed in full camouflage and carrying a backpack—a special pair of night binoculars dangling from his neck. He tried to high five me again, but this time I was a little slow on the draw, our hands just barely grazed each other, and Rocky rolled his eyes at me and spat in the dirt.
“Here’s the plan,” he whispered. “I’ll put these rags around the back of the trailer, and when I whistle, you’re going to run up to the front door, hammer on it, yell ‘fire,’ and then we’ll both meet back here to make sure all goes according to plan.”
“What? Why do I have to run up to the front door? Why don’t you do that part? What if they see me?” Gone was my bravado from earlier in the day, my sense that this was somehow an important turning point in my life. The botched high-five was the only sign I needed. I wanted nothing more than to be home, safe in bed, leaving this problem to my mother and father to figure out for themselves, like the adults they supposedly were. My father had been married once before, and from this marriage was born my older sister Casey, who came to visit every other weekend and who served as a constant reminder to me of how much more my life would suck if my parents’ relationship ended just as badly as my father’s first. I could picture myself shuttling back and forth, my meager belongings stuffed into my dad’s old duffle bag, something always left at the wrong house, my parents bad-mouthing each other, snapping at me to ask the other one to pay for my new shoes—but I now realized that if this was how things were going to be, burning down Bobby Singer’s trailer would change nothing. Some things in life are so inevitable, not even a fire can divert them.
“Don’t be such a pussy!” Rocky hissed, his breath hot and bitter in my face. He unzipped his backpack and pulled out a plastic bag of gasoline-soaked rags. My eyes began to water. “Here,” he said, and thrust a black ski mask into my hand, “Wear this so they won’t recognize you. If you get caught, I know you’ll talk.” Rocky shouldered his pack, clutching the bag of rags in his hand, and moved into a crouch. “OK, wait for my whistle, got that, dick breath?”
I nodded, too sick and afraid to speak. I imagined something going horribly wrong, the entire forest catching on fire, my mother being roasted alive in the arms of Bobby Singer, my father, alone and emaciated, visiting me in prison. And then, through this clouded vision of my uncertain future, through the burning nausea coursing through my body, a curious sense of clarity descended upon me. What did I care if my mother was having a lesbian affair—who was I to judge? Half the people in this town would be happy to burn me alive if they knew who I was, and my mother was not one of them. Maybe this was why Rocky was my neighbor, maybe he wasn’t sent by the heterosexual gods after all, but by the gay gods, so that I could be present in this moment in order to avert this terrible tragedy. I knew then what I had to do.
In a screaming falsetto, I burst from the trees. “Fire! Fire! Run! Fire! Run!”
Rocky, already headed toward the back of the trailer, spun around to look at me, face maniacal with the night-vision goggles. He waved his arms at me to stop, but I ignored him and kept running, past him to the trailer door. “Mom! Mom!” My screams were primal, erupting from my chest and tearing through the night air. I pounded my fists on the trailer door. The door burst open, and Bobby Singer and a woman, hardly dressed, barefoot, came tumbling out into the yard.
It only took a moment for me to realize this wasn’t my mother at all; it was Rocky’s mother, Tricia, standing there in her underwear and a tank top, shivering in the moonlight. Then I remembered—my mom didn’t have a tattoo.
“What the fuck is going on?” Bobby Singer said. She was wearing a pair of boxer shorts, and a tight white t-shirt that seemed to glow in the moonlight. “Do I need to spring for the hose, or is this some adolescent bullshit?”
Rocky stood beside me, still wearing his night-vision goggles and clutching the bag of gasoline-soaked rags. “Rocky?” Rocky’s mother said, “Is that you?”
I couldn’t decide whether to be angry or sorry for him. My emotions were going crazy, crashing around inside my chest, and all I wanted was to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head for a month. My mother was not in Bobby Singer’s trailer, and never had been. My mother was in New York, where she was supposed to be, not naked in the whore can exploring her sexuality. Beside me, Rocky pulled off his night-vision goggles and wiped at his eyes with the back of one dirty arm. The unimaginable was happening. Rocky Lloyd was crying. But rather than socking him in the arm and calling him a faggot as he would have done to me, I turned and ran, sprinting home down the gravel road, running as fast and hard as I had ever run. I was taking my gay-self home. As for Rocky, he would never speak to me again, and for that reason alone I never regretted that night, and considered it, in fact, the ultimate success.