Tony Valentine danced with all the ugly girls in junior high. They’d be lined up by the wall of the gym, each with their own unique sort of hideousness: fat or pimply, scrawny or greasy, wearing their dirty clothes, flashing their braces or buck-teeth. They stood exactly where one would expect them to stand at a junior high dance, guarding the cinderblock wall with their fingers laced behind their backs. Except at our school, they were not leaning awkwardly, swallowing their tears and wishing they hadn’t come. They were waiting for their turn to dance with Tony.
At first, we interpreted this as a cruel joke. Tony was sought after by girls who didn’t have buck teeth, who had slender legs and feathery hair and smelled good, and he even dated Caroline Cleary, a girl of this very sort, when he felt like having her around. He didn’t have a lot of close friends, but the boys were always ready to drop what they were doing and be his lackeys for whatever nasty business he could come up with–nasty business that was usually carried out with surprising efficiency against authority figures, and most times involved fire or mucus. He was, as far as anyone could tell, a legitimate punk. He had a leather jacket and he wore his hair slicked back like Elvis. He listened to the Ramones and could sing the lyrics and no one had ever seen his parents. He was not nice, and seemed exactly the sort of person who would be cruel to an innocent ugly girl for a laugh.
Soon it became clear, though, that these dances were not a joke. Certainly there was something theatrical about the way he pulled the girl to the center of the gym floor, holding her by both hands, looking lasciviously into her eyes the whole while, like he couldn’t wait to devour her. But just when you expected him to drop her hands and go collect ten bucks from one of his lackeys, he’d pull her right up to him and plant his palms at the small of her back, letting his finger tips touch her ass just barely. He’d keep eye contact with her for a moment, then he’d put his cheek up to hers and start whispering in her ear. It was something to see, that was for sure; Tony Valentine, who everybody knew had a switchblade in his back pocket, brushing his eyelashes against the fleshy neck of Fat Linda, letting his lips pass over the tender earlobe of Gabrielle, the dandruff queen.
None of the ugly girls would say what Tony Valentine whispered in her ear, and everyone assumed that was because it was so dirty, they wouldn’t dare repeat it.
“Tony Dances with the Ugly Girls” was not the only story of Tony-based antics that the kids who went to our school, now grown, remember. There’s also “Tony Dives from Roof into a Garbage Truck in a Daring and Unlikely Escape,” “Tony Sets the Bells all Back Ten Minutes, and we get out of School an Hour Early,” “Tony gets the Principal in a Headlock,” and of course the story about when he spent an entire class period under the desk where Miss Schuck (a young, but tired and gnarled looking math teacher) sat, supposedly wearing a skirt, commonly known as “Tony Gives Miss Schuck an Orgasm During Class.” By the end of junior high, Tony Valentine could boast of an entire mythology based on him. I can’t confirm the truth of all these stories. I missed most of them. But I did see him dance with the ugly girls, and once, I agreed to be one of his lackeys, because he asked.
I was never anyone’s first choice for a lackey, or anything that involved muscle, because I was small and had thin hands and a narrow, kind of weasel-looking face. I got picked for things like relay teams in gym, because I was fast. Weaselly guys are always good runners. But it wasn’t worth it to be fast—everyone was always accusing me of looking like a sixth grader in eighth grade, even teachers, and the fact that the accusation was usually a genuine observation made it even more insulting, and impossible to come back at the person who said it.
But on this occasion, my size worked to my advantage. He came up to me in the hall and said, “Hey, Marc…I need a featherweight. You wanna help me out?”
He was leaning on the locker next to mine. He smelled like kerosene and hair gel and was wearing a Misfits t-shirt. I liked the way he said my name, like we had been friends a long time. Like he knew he could always count on me for anything, and vice versa.
“Yeah, I’m your man. What’s up?”
I was quick to consent to help, not just because Tony was charming, and because I wanted people (mostly girls) to see me conspiring with him and think “Marc’s a badass these days,” but also because I knew I was relatively safe. I knew what Tony had his featherweights up to, and it was petty theft. I’d seen them in the cafeteria, after school had let out, and I was heading to the gym, late for track practice. It was him and Walt Minor, pillaging the snack vending machine. Tony leaned against the machine with his arms folded, pokerfaced, keeping watch for Walt, who, contorting himself so that his upper body was flush with the vending machine, reached his arm up into the machine and plucked as many bags of chips from the bottom row of snacks as he could. When Tony saw me, I pretended not to be looking at them, but Tony said, “Hey, Marc,” and when I looked over he just smiled and nodded. Walt finally got his arm out and rubbed it while Tony retrieved his bounty of Cheetos and Corn Nuts from the trough of the machine, without a second, or even a first, thought to the idea of me telling on them, or demanding a cut of the snacks for my silence.
So even though it involved possibly dislocating my shoulder, I felt the risk involved in helping Tony rob the vending machine was well worth the anticipated pay off.
“C’mere then,” he said, and I followed him to the boys’ bathroom. I stood there while he peed, uncomfortable. He peed for a long time, with his head down, his eyes closed, looking pleased with the whole scenario unfolding: he, taking a piss; me, waiting in silence for instruction. Or maybe he was thinking about something else entirely. When he finished, he zipped up, washed his hands, and checked to see if his hair was still plastered firmly to his head, which it was.
“’Kay, so. Look at this,” he said. He reached in his jacket and pulled from the inner pocket a red, fleshy wad of something. At first, I could not register what it was, the object was so out of place in his hand, and I figured it for a giant ball of red chewing gum that had already been chewed. Once my eyes and my mind synced up again, though, I saw that it was a heart.
“Oh my God. Whose heart is that?” I said.
“Shhhhh. It’s okay. Not ‘whose heart.’ It’s not from a person, it’s from a sheep, dumbass.”
“Oh my God. Where’d you get that?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he said. He examined the heart. Then he examined himself in the mirror holding the heart.
“Well…I think I should know where you got the heart,” I said.
He shrugged, “Fine. Take the mystery out of it. I got it at the butcher shop. And Santa Claus isn’t real. There goes all the magic in the world right there.”
“What do you want me to do with it?”
“Eat it,” he said.
“Blow me,” I said, before I remembered that Tony and I weren’t friends, and that he was the sort of person who didn’t mind walking around with a once living heart in his jacket pocket.
He took out the switchblade (that everyone knew he had) and pressed the button on the side. The blade snapped out. “Fine, fuck you then,” he said, “I was just joking. We don’t have to joke.” Then he walked over to the sink and placed the heart in it and started poking at the heart with his knife. I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, because I was too terrified to get close enough to look. He glanced over his shoulder at me, and, realizing I wasn’t going to get any closer, he narrated for me, “There’s still blood in the ventricles. Gotta get that out. Can’t have it all bleeding everywhere.”
“Nope. Can’t have that.”
I wanted to run out the door, but I was both curious about what he might ask me to do, and also well aware that even if I ran he’d catch me. I’d heard the story: “Tony Kills a Guy and Buries Him in the Woods beside His Trailer.” Of course no one had seen him kill the guy, but a kid who lived in the same cluster of trailers as Tony (it wasn’t exactly a ‘park.’ The trailers weren’t close enough together to be called a park or to really be considered a unit at all) had seen him one night only a couple months ago pulling some sort of lumpy body-sized thing wrapped in a sheet with a cord, maybe a phone cord, tied around the middle of it, “like a big tamale,” the kid said. The kid who told us this was Chester, who I don’t remember much about; just that I never saw him eat anything other than a peanut butter sandwich for lunch (except on the occasions that Tony robbed the vending machine) and that he was quiet, not the type to tell stories to make himself popular. We all knew this, which made his testimony all the more chilling.
“Do you wanna know how I want you to help me?” he asked.
He ran water over the heart.
“It’s really not that hard. Or even that risky.”
I sank down to the tiled floor of the boys’ restroom. I knew it was gross, but I had to sit. My knees were starting to shake and I couldn’t let him see.
“I just need you to take the sheep’s heart and swap it with the human heart that’s in the science room.”
“Are you fucking with me again?”
“Okay, just checking. Cause the little room with all the crazy crap in it is always locked,” I said.
“I know, that’s why you have to do it. Cause you’re all Spider-man and you can get up in the ventilation, pop right through the vent in there, swap the heart and crawl right back. No one’ll even notice. Never use that stuff in class anyway.”
“Can’t you just, like, pick the lock?”
Tony laughed. “Man, I can’t pick a lock. That’s not as easy as the way they make it look in movies. Now crawling around in the air ducts, that’s exactly how easy they make it look in the movies. Maybe even a little easier.”
He dried the heart with paper towels, and tried to hand it to me.
“Why do you want to switch it anyway?” I asked.
“Because I need the human heart.”
“I can’t tell you,” he said. Since I wasn’t taking the heart, he took my hand and laid the heart in it, closing my fingers around it. “It’s for a good cause, though.”
It was pretty simple after all. I crawled up into the cold air return in the boys’ locker room, and, as Tony had promised, it was nearly a straight shot to the anteroom of the science lab, where I took the human heart from its formaldehyde jar and replaced it with the sheep’s heart. And when I was done, Tony pulled me by my sweating arms out of the vent and clapped me on the back and invited me to his place.
“I can’t,” I said, thinking, your place is where the body is.
“C’mon. Please? I’m making hot dogs. On the grill.”
And, of course, at 7:30, my unsuspecting mother dropped me off at the movie rental store/arcade, where I walked to Tony’s trailer and skulked around other people’s yards for a while until I saw Caroline Cleary, Tony’s sometimes-girlfriend, come out with a plate of hotdogs.
“Hi, Caroline,” I said.
She jumped, and reeled around, ready to fight me with her grill fork.
“Marc, fuck, hi, you scared the bejeezus outta me,” she said, tucking a sheet of blond hair back behind her ear. “Tony’s inside with Rolen.”
Caroline wasn’t a very pretty girl, but she often got mistaken as a pretty girl because she had nice long blond hair, and, since she had a nice body and she knew how to make herself smell good, she was popular. There was nothing about Caroline that was “punk” in any way, unless you considered the multiple piercings in her ears to be signs of delinquency. Other than that, and the fact that she was sort of seeing Tony, Caroline was like any other popular girl at our school: she wore those white tennis shoes like cheerleaders wore, and she did her nails, and if she didn’t like you, she’d let you know by making fun of the part of yourself that you were most insecure about.
She turned back to the grill, ignoring me, dropping the hot dogs gingerly on to the grill with one hand and holding the fork with the other. I was about to tell her she ought to use a pair of tongs for that, when Tony burst from the trailer.
“Hi,” I said.
He motioned for me to come inside, so I did. The trailer was small, not one of the double-wide sorts that are bigger than some houses. Most of the living room was taken up by a squatty-looking brown couch with flat cushions, which Rolen, a fat, freckly boy, Tony’s favorite lackey, was sitting on.
“Do you want a beer?” Tony said, crouching down in the kitchen to open a little refrigerator.
“Because. I don’t drink during track season.”
Rolen snorted. “Pussy,” he said, “even Caroline’ll drink a stupid beer.”
“Heeeeey, Rolen,” said Tony, tossing him a can, “you can go ahead and shut the fuck up, now.”
I didn’t see any adults around, but looking at the walls of the trailer, I figured that even though no one had ever seen Tony’s elusive parents, they must have existed. I couldn’t imagine that Tony would have decorated his trailer with the kind of hokey Indian crafts that were all over the walls and on every surface. Two wooden flutes sat on top of the TV. Dried flowers hung from the ceiling, pictures of horses and buffalo painted on pieces of wood were nailed to the walls as well as several dream catchers with dangling beads and feathers for filtering out bad dreams and only letting the good ones through—apparently someone had had a rash of nightmares, because I counted eight of them. The focal point of the room was a deer hide stretched over the wall with a painting of a yellow-eyed coyote on it. This was directly above Rolen, who let his beer dribble down in his chin like he was too lazy for the effort it took to keep his mouth closed.
Another indication of adults: though every square inch of space was consumed by a person, a campy decoration, or a piece of furniture, it was clean.
“What’s all the Indian crap about?” I said.
“It’s not crap,” said Tony, “it’s my grandpa’s. Except the dream catchers. Grandpa says they’re New Age bullshit. I think they work, though.” He pulled a bag of shredded cabbage from the mini-fridge and opened it with his teeth and then poured it into a large plastic mixing bowl. “My grandpa’s an Indian. Chippewa.”
“No he isn’t,” I said.
“Yuh-huh. Look.” Tony walked to me and thrust his arm in my face. “No hair. Indians don’t have a bunch of hair like white people do.”
“Your last name is Valentine.”
“What’s it supposed to be? Running Moose? My dad’s not an Indian. He’s Italian. A big greasy Italian. And my mom is half Indian, half whore.” He dumped a jar of coleslaw on his cabbage. “So, that makes me half greasy Italian, one-fourth Chippewa, and one-fourth whore.”
“Do they live here? Your mom and dad?”
“No. I think they might live in Florida. Or they might be dead. Not sure.”
Caroline came in with her plate of hotdogs, now cooked. “There’s your wieners. You want me to put them on the buns, too, your majesty?”
“No, Rolen will do that. Marc, tell Rolen what you want on your hotdog. I got mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, relish. Maybe an onion. It might be old, though.”
We ate our hotdogs and coleslaw outside, on a piece of plywood atop four cinderblocks. We each sat in a plastic chair, except Rolen, who sat on the ground. I had the feeling I’d taken his seat, but that he was use to having his seat taken. Caroline chopped her hotdog up and ate it with a fork, dipping the pieces in ketchup. Tony rubbed her leg the entire time we ate, and Rolen and I watched.
When we were done, Rolen took the paper plates inside and threw them away, and washed out the coleslaw bowl, and Tony and Caroline continued, as if I wasn’t there, to paw each other. Tony pulled up her blond hair in one fist and ran his finger in figure eight patterns on the back of her neck—so he was actually doing the majority of the pawing and Caroline just sat there, staring through me while he did this, her mouth kind of open in an aggrieved way, like she might have apologized for behaving like this in front of me if she could have moved. I probably had the same look on my face, because even though I could have averted my eyes or gone inside with Rolen, I didn’t. I should have felt awkward, but the feeling didn’t register with me. Instead, I felt happy. It was warm outside, but breezy, and it smelled like winter was over—that sort of wet, organic, melted smell, mixed with the odor of still-smoldering coals on the grill. All of my senses told me that things were pleasant, and I was safe.
Rolen came out of the trailer and Tony asked if we’d like to see some “Indian magic.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Oh, honey. Don’t,” said Caroline, but he ignored her and started searching on the ground for something.
“What’re you gonna do?” asked Rolen, animated now, his belly swaying as went to investigate the ground along with Tony.
“Look for a critter,” he said. “Like a beetle or something.”
Caroline snorted. “There’s a big disgusting fly right there,” she said, pointing to the plywood where a dribble of coleslaw had indeed attracted a large fly with an iridescent green back.
“Cool. Don’t move, Caroline.”
“Oh, I won’t. Not moving.”
“Marc, go get me a cup of water from the kitchen. There’s pliers by the sink. You have to use them to turn on the faucet. Hurry.”
I ran inside and found a blue plastic cup on top of the mini-fridge, and, after a struggle with the pliers, managed to get the cold water running. Along the sink were orange bottles of prescription medication, five or six of them, all full of pills, and an economy-sized bottle of aspirin. Grandpa stuff.
“Come on, Marc, it’s biting the hell out of me!” Tony yelled.
I brought the glass of water out. Rolen was still sitting on the ground, and Tony stood behind him, cupping his hands together. Caroline was rolling her eyes and fishing in her purse for something. “You caught the fly?” I asked.
“It’s not that hard,” said Rolen, “if you’re fast.”
Tony submerged his hand in the cup and freed the squirming fly in the water.
“This is dumb. Let’s do something else,” said Caroline.
“Shut-up, I want to see the trick,” said Rolen.
Caroline found a bent cigarette, which was apparently what she was looking for, straightened it, and lit it with a blue lighter. “Rolen, you’re a retard,” she said.
“And you’re a trashy ho,” said Rolen, and winced before he even saw Tony’s boot headed for his back. He grunted and rolled to his side on the ground. She smirked at him.
“Caroline, quit. Both of you shut up and let this thing die in peace,” said Tony, and turned his attention back to the cup, where the fly’s struggle was beginning to subside into occasional wiggles. When it finally floated, completely still, on the surface of the water, Tony took a deep breath and pulled it out by pinching one of its wings. He laid it in the center of his palm, its legs tangled like bits of thread, and blew on it. “Come here, Rolen, this is the trick,” he said, and pulled him to his feet.
We watched as Tony waved his hand over the fly. He blew on it again, and then enclosed it between his two hands, shutting his eyes, murmuring something to himself. He looked so serious even Caroline sat frozen, letting the ash on her cigarette grow long in her anticipation.
Then, he whispered something into his cupped hands, and opened them. The fly was standing on its delicate black legs. It crawled lethargically up to the tip of Tony’s ring finger, and sat there for a moment before it buzzed away.
“Yes! Did you see that? I brought it back to life. It was dead and I brought it back to life.”
“You…you were the one that killed it in the first place!” said Caroline, but he wasn’t listening. Rolen clapped his hands and shouted Oh-my-God, Oh-my-God over and over, as Tony laughed, and jumped up and down like a child.
The girls who were in the locker room the day Caroline Cleary went crazy told it like this: everyone was just getting dressed, talking about the last dance of the year, the last dance before high school, when Caroline threw her tennis shoe across the room. It hit the locker next to the wall that Gabrielle the dandruff queen was hiding behind to get dressed. And Erika Sloan said something like, “God, spaz much, Caroline?” and Deirdre Blankenship agreed, “Yeah, whatever it is, it’s not the shoe’s fault.”
Gabrielle, a too-skinny girl with sunken eyes and a navy blue sweater dotted with white flakes on the shoulders (hence her nickname), peeked around the wall, just to see if everything was alright, and Caroline charged at her. Gabrielle, who didn’t have her gym shorts pulled entirely off yet, staggered back and fell.
“Oh my God, you have got to be kidding me,” Caroline said, laughing. She helped Gabrielle off the floor, but when Gabrielle went to pull her shorts up, Caroline grabbed her wrists. “You’ve danced with my boyfriend before,” she said.
All the girls dropped their lip glosses and deodorant sticks and looked at each other with knowing expressions on their faces. Gabrielle also looked at the other girls in the locker room, trying to find a face that seemed sympathetic. She opened her mouth to say something, but didn’t really know how to respond to Caroline. “You’ve danced with my boyfriend before,” she probably thought, is more or less a statement, and doesn’t really necessitate a reply.
“Why does he dance with you and not me?” Caroline squeezed the girl’s wrists.
“I don’t know,” said Gabrielle.
“I’m his girlfriend.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“But you say yes. You know he’s my boyfriend, but when he asks you to dance you say yes. Doesn’t that make you a bitch?”
“No! It’s just that…he’s the only one who ever asks. You know…everybody knows he’s just being nice.”
“He isn’t nice,” said Caroline, and dug her painted nails into Gabrielle’s wrists, making her squeal and squirm. “What does he say when you dance?”
Gabrielle tried to pull away, but that was when Caroline pushed her into the wall next to the bathroom sink where the girls had their hair appliances plugged in and ready for use, and Erika Sloan, who was a hot girl, but kind of a nice hot girl, said, “It’s not her fault, Caroline. You really need to talk to Tony.”
Caroline had lost her mind, though. “Tell me what he says when you dance.”
“He doesn’t say anything.”
“Yes, he does, I see his lips moving!”
“I don’t know.”
This was about the point where Caroline grabbed the curling iron and pressed a red, wet-looking stripe into Gabrielle’s forehead. Erika tried to pull her off then, but Caroline elbowed her in the ribs.
“You stupid crazy cunt,” said Gabrielle. She hadn’t started crying yet, but as soon as she realized that Caroline really meant to make her say it, really meant to make her give up the secret that was the special link between Tony and her, the thing that made him dancing with her not so much a joke or an act of pity, but a real dance, she burst out crying, and apparently didn’t stop for several hours.
“He doesn’t say anything, he just sings songs. Just stupid songs. Not even love songs, just, like punk songs. Half the time they’re about rioting and getting drunk. See? See how much more he loves me than you?”
And then Caroline, like she thought that really was proof he loved Gabrielle and the ugly girls more than her, threw the curling iron into the mirror and ran out of the locker room.
The last day anyone ever saw Tony Valentine was the day after the whole curling iron incident. He hadn’t been at school the day prior, but he had heard the story from Rolen who, like everyone else, had heard it from the girls in the locker room. He ran up the stairs of the school of the main hall, first thing in the morning, when everyone was still getting their books for their morning classes, loafing against their lockers and talking about what they’d done the night before, and whispering, of course, about Caroline having gone insane the previous day. Everyone watched as Tony ran right up to Gabrielle the dandruff queen, and cupped her face, and lifted her bangs to reveal what was now a long yellow blister. The long hall of lockers was completely silent for moment and we witnessed Tony’s face fall. Rolen came huffing up the stairs then. “She’s in the parking lot,” he said.
A murmur rose in the hall, and someone, a girl, Erika or Deirdre or maybe someone else entirely, said, “She’s pissed, Tony, you don’t know. She’s going to kill you.”
Tony’s response was to tongue-kiss Gabrielle, and everyone drew a deep gasp of communal voyeuristic pleasure, even though Gabrielle didn’t seem to like it very much, and when he released her and we all followed him out to the parking lot, she started crying all over again.
Caroline stood in the parking lot with her hands on her hips. Tony was making his way to her with big strides. “What? You’re going to beat me up? You’re going to punch my lights out and bury me in the woods?” she said as he approached. For a moment it seemed like he might plow right through her, but he stopped, just in front of her. He slapped her face so hard, all our hands went instinctively to our cheeks, but in an awful sort of way we’d all been hoping he’d do it. Not because we all disliked Caroline so much. Aside from burning Gabrielle, she wasn’t a vicious girl; in fact, she seemed smart and kind of funny, and it was sad to see her fight so hard for the simple privilege of writing “C-Heart-T” on her notebooks without having anyone question that privilege.
“What is wrong with you?” she said. She clutched her face, and leaned to the left, as if in slapping her he had paralyzed half her body. “You’re nuts.”
“No, I am not nuts. You burnt a girl with a curling iron, you’re the one who’s nuts.”
“You hit me! I fucking can’t believe you hit me,” she said.
Tony looked around and saw his audience perhaps for the first time. “No, I don’t hit girls,” he said, “I love girls. But you’re not a girl, you’re a fucking witch! You’re a fucking harpy.”
“Me? I’m not a witch. You’re the witch. With your stupid medicine-man shit. Coyote medicine shit.”
In our peripheral vision, we saw adults coming. The crooked-nosed science teacher, the principal, Miss Schuck in the skirt that Tony was said to have lifted under a desk. We weren’t in our first period classes, and they were coming for us, but we couldn’t take our eyes off Tony’s pale face. “Shut up,” he said, but she didn’t because she knew she had him.
“Listen everybody,” she said, “Tony has his grandpa’s body buried in the woods. He died a month ago from a heart attack, and Tony didn’t call the ambulance.”
“Caroline,” said Tony, and then we all knew it was true, whatever she was saying was true, because his chest started to heave and flutter, as a person’s chest does when they cry. He wasn’t crying, though—only his chest was.
“Yep, he buried him in the woods all right, because he doesn’t want the police to come and put him in a boys’ home. And he’s going to bring him back to life, with coyote magic. See? He’s crazy. Tony Valentine is crazy, crazy, crazy.”
Then Tony, who saw the adults coming in his peripheral vision as well, turned and ran.
That was the last most of us ever saw of him, the back of Tony with his black boots pounding the ground, pulling off his leather jacket as he went, as it was a hindrance to speed, shooting up the street and then disappearing behind a row of cars, so when the principal asked which way he had gone, we really couldn’t say.
It was Rolen and Chester who really saw Tony off, though. After school, they found him in his trailer, wedged between the brown couch and the wall, holding the heart I had snagged from the science room (Caroline later told me, without any provocation from me—I didn’t want to know—that the human heart was part of the magic and was meant to symbolically replace the organ that had malfunctioned in his grandpa, killing him).
This was what Chester told us happened. Rolen didn’t say much.
The police had come, Tony said. They must not have known about the body buried in the woods, or the fact that he had been living alone for a month, only that Tony was truant and had left a sprawling welt on a girl’s face. They would be back, though, he said.
Tony didn’t look right at all, Chester noticed. He was all sweaty, and his hair hung wet over his forehead, instead of in the slicked back style that he was usually careful not to disturb. And his lips were white.
“What’s wrong with you, man?” said Rolen. When Tony didn’t answer, Rolen shook him by the shoulders, “Hey, what the fuck, dude? Why are you all sweating? It ain’t hot in here.”
“Rolen, quit shaking me, you’re gonna make me puke,” said Tony, trying to pry Rolen’s fingers off. The fact that Tony didn’t just clock him made Rolen panic, and he started shaking him even harder.
“Quit that, Rolen, stop,” said Chester, but Rolen just gritted his teeth and kept shaking him. Chester wasn’t a big guy. He tried to wrap up Rolen’s arms, but he broke free easily. Then Tony gurgled a bit, and out of him gushed a white frothy vomit that covered both he and Rolen’s shirt fronts.
Chester went to get him some water. He saw, when he picked up the pliers to turn on the faucet, that the orange bottles of grandpa-medicine and the aspirin bottle were open, and that some pills had been dropped in the sink. Several aspirin had dissolved into white pasty mounds. Chester filled a glass of water and brought it to Rolen, who administered it to Tony. Then, Chester walked back into a bedroom and sat down on “the most comfortable bed ever.” The mattress was covered by layers of white cotton sheets and a white bedspread and an ugly orange-and-brown afghan. On the nightstand, which was covered in a lace table cloth, was a brass alarm clock and a teal touch-tone telephone. The only other item of furniture in the room was an oak dresser, and on top of that was picture of little boy smiling and holding a gushing garden hose (Chester could only assume this was a smaller, blonder version of Tony) and a silver money clip with no money in it. Chester said he lay there for a moment, not really knowing what to do, not really wanting to do anything. In the end, he took the teal telephone off the hook and called 9-1-1, and covered himself in the afghan up to his knees and waited for the ambulance to arrive.
We asked Rolen, “Did he say anything to you while Chester was in the bedroom? Did you ride with him in the ambulance when it came?”
Rolen shook his head and said, “If only his spell worked, they wouldn’t have had to take him.”
“You know he’s crazy, right?” we told him.
But he didn’t know that.
All Rolen could tell us was that the spell should have worked, and that when the ambulance arrived, and Rolen asked if Tony would be all right, Tony said, yes, he’d be fine. He said that his grandpa, before he died, had uncovered the secret to eternal life, and even though he was too old to put the secret to use for himself, he had told Tony. “‘The secret,’ he said, ‘is to make it with the lonely girls. The love of a dog-ugly girl will keep you alive forever.’ Godammit. You dick, why’d you call the ambulance?” And Rolen said he didn’t, and then they rolled the stretcher away.
At the last dance before high school, Caroline Cleary, who had pasted about a thousand yellow and pink paper stars on the gym wall, danced with me. I had my hands on her waist, the fabric of her shirt gathering between my fingers against my will—I didn’t want to touch her too much, partially because my hands were sweaty and I figured that the moisture would seep easily through her cotton shirt. Caroline was still a popular girl, but no one felt comfortable around her. I didn’t feel comfortable around her, but I kept wondering if it wouldn’t be the right thing to do to pull her close and bite her earlobe or something and make her feel like she was with Tony again. But she smiled at me in such a disinterested way that I couldn’t imagine that was what she wanted me to do.
And then, of course, there were the ugly girls lined up by the gym wall watching us. They seemed, in the dark gym that night, strangely intimidating, licking their metal-wired chops, their arms folded in front of them, instead of straight at their sides or behind their backs. I didn’t dare do anything more than lightly touch Caroline’s waist with those girls looking on, those predatory ugly girls in their floral prints who were keeping Tony, somewhere in the dormitory of a boys’ home, surrounded by his dream catchers, alive.