The Minds of Boys

By Luke B. Goebel

It was still summer and the days had been long forever. The moon was a long stretch of yellow and the waves sparkled on the blackened sea. Keiko was wrestling a dog. The new dog Other had lured to camp that afternoon.

“It’s simple,” Keiko told Other, “we’re going over to the store and you’re going to steal some meat. Good raw meat. Black styrofoam trays of meat. Once you get it, we’ll cover you with meat juice, pin strips of it onto your clothes, and you go running through the park. Whatever dogs chase back will be ours.”

It was of no use to argue. Keiko was the boss. And he was old, though he claimed to be sixteen. He was a big guy, with large hairy thighs squeezed into a pair of old black bathing shorts.

“This is going to be great,” Keiko said. “This means more dogs for us.”

In the moonlight, Keiko and the new dog struggled for control. The dog howled and Keiko made sharp cracking sounds, landing elbows and fists to the dog’s side and head. The troop watched from a distance, their fire burning itself away. They didn’t circle in to watch Keiko as they had earlier in the summer, when Keiko punched and the new dogs fought with their teeth. The boys knew this from experience, and they didn’t want to watch. Instead they drank warm beer in cans, sipping slowly, and licked their upper lips for moisture. Not one had enough lip fuzz to catch any drop-sized glints of beer, but they licked anyway, imagining mustaches and the tickle of wet hairs on their tongues.

Winds came and swept the ash off the coals, making their fire burn brighter. Flames cast long shadows across the sand, and waves roved across the grainy sea. Keiko punched and the new dog growled. Then cried. Some of the boys secretly wished for the dog.

“Dog sounds alright,” Other said.

“Yeah,” some boys agreed. Earlier that day, they reclined and watched the sky as big as anything, happy to have time in the world.

A billowy cloud had been shaped like a whale and another was a long feather but also a dragon shaped sword, and then there were the streaks of white that blended. At night, the clouds were ash and smoke. The dark was close beside them, kept back only by the rise of firelight in wind.

In the morning they would find a band of blackened sand and cool chunks of charcoal. In the mornings, they never missed their mothers. But at night, sitting and listening to the dog yelp, some longed for home.

“Let’s go to that dance,” Cutlass said. “The one those girls were talking about.” Worm agreed. So did Gill. Cutlass seemed most ready to go, his moonborn curls winging out from his face. He cut his hair with a knife whenever he wanted, and now he was ready to go. But they couldn’t go unless Keiko agreed.

Other laughed, “Are you kidding? Keiko will never let us.” But no one seemed to pay attention. They heard the dog cry and saw it run sideways from Keiko. He started back towards the fire.  Closer, the flames lit Keiko and they could see he was bleeding.

“What are you looking at?” Keiko said, slick with dog slobber and grease. He spit into a palm and rubbed his bleeding hand through his hair.

“Any you going to wrestle the new dog?” he said. “No? What are you so quiet for. All miss your mothers?”

“We want to go to this dance tonight,” Cutlass said, but Keiko just laughed. He inspected his hand, sucked at the wound. “None of you gonna wrestle?”

“There’s going to be girls at it.”

“Girls! What do you need them for? ”

“I don’t, but haven’t you ever wanted to know about them? What they smell like?”

“What they smell like? Lick your own hand and smell it. That’s all.”

Cutlass looked into the fire and he felt sorry. He wanted to lick his hand to smell it, but he would have to wait until no one was looking.

They started all talking about the dance, roaming in line from tallest to short to medium and then shortest. They were dark and silhouetted by the moon, tromping away from the fire, and farther from the sea.

Keiko led because Keiko always led, and Other followed.

Behind Other was Cutlass. And behind Cutlass was Gill. Behind Gill was Worm. And behind Worm was Void. Then came Baxal. After Baxal followed Chance, smoking a cigarette that was mostly just filter. He dug them up on the beach. Bean was last, the youngest of all. And after Bean came one of the rotten dogs. Bean chased the dog off with a stick.

“Look at that cloud,” Cutlass said, mouth holding a wad of spit. Then he spit as far as he could, arching so the moon was in his sights. For a moment the whole beach smelled like how he imagined a girl would. Then the dog came back and Bean chased it with the stick.

They reached the parking lot and saw the gymnasium with its orange external lights protected by metal cages. They made toward the stairs and Keiko circled back to the end of the line to be last. He tried to slip through the doors, but the chaperones moved and blocked the entrance.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Going in.”

“Surely not,” said the woman chaperone. “This is a pre-teen dance.”

Keiko went to push her, but a man stood between with his arms akimbo.  “Alright, Mac,” he said, “what are you trying to pull?”

“Look, I’m fifteen. I have a hormone imbalance. Those are my friends.”

“You’re bleeding,” said the man. “You got school ID?”

“Home-schooled.”

“Sorry. But you’re not getting in,” the man said.

“I’ll remember you,” Keiko said and he glared, rubbing the bite mark on his face. “I’ll remember,” he said, but sounded more sad than threatening.

Inside the boys were looking around, letting their eyes adjust to the lights. They had spent their summer around campfires, and for the first time they were back inside a school gymnasium.

They saw girls—wearing tube tops with scalloped straps, padded bras pushing their little cleavages up toward the soft necklines. The boys could smell the scented lotions, the deodorant sprays, and the chewing gum they thought was from the girls’ sweat. These girls lived in houses. Boys woke in the dunes, a new dog sleeping by their face, fur rank with mildew and salt. Sometimes it was Keiko they woke beside, his big thighs up against them, but here were real girls, eighth graders. Some wearing black skirts and pantyhose, bright lipsticks and gold jewelry. Plus interesting footwear. Blue towel-looking shoes with big cork bottoms, and shiny red platforms with open-toe fronts, three toes squeezed together. There were plastic ones with hard bows that made the girls’ calves push up. Some wore strappy numbers and stood on pencil-thin sticks. The girls had white toe-nail polish on the ends of their toenails, and some reminded Cutlass and Gill of sisters back home.

With Keiko, every morning had its chores: finding wood, stealing food. It was good living at the beach. There were structures to build up and old ones to tear down, dogs to steal and return for rewards. There were all sorts of grand adventures – swim races in the sea – and a time each day to sit and ponder questions like how far the sky was from the ground, or if  dreams weighed anything in their brains at night.

But here were girls, thin limbed and covered in little hairs. Their eyebrows tweezed to nothing. Others had eyebrows thick as bird’s wings. Here were women.

Keiko stood in the parking lot and scratched at a thigh. He looked up and saw a cloud like a head with a moon going through it like a torch.

“Think Keiko’s alright?” Other said, but nobody responded. They were each taking in the view.

Glum girls stood against the wall and looked away, striking their butts against the painted cinderblocks. The good-lookers all stood in a circle on center court and inside the circle was a girl wearing a brace. It started down at her collarbones and held bars that rose up and attached to pins sticking out of her skull. She looked caged inside there. And her eyes moved.

The troop neared and she said, “Watch out! Don’t let them bump me.” The other girls stared at the boys’ torn clothes and their filthy hands, but noticed also how darkly tanned and the way the boys were looking at them and weren’t afraid. Girls liked Cutlass’s haircut. Void rubbed his knees and Gill put his hand in a pocket. He started to move it inside and walked over to the saddest-looking girl against  the wall.

Chance, Worm, Baxal, Bean, and Cutlass were all trying to figure which girls would be easiest to dance with, and which were tall enough, so that while dancing they could put their hands low on the girls’ waistlines and let their fingertips graze the highest point of their smooth bottoms.

Cutlass was  first to approach the circle of girls. Worm, Baxal, Chance, Void, and Bean were watching.

“You girls still live with your mothers?” Cutlass announced, not like a question.

“Where else?” the girl with the neck scoffed, and another girl in a bright yellow tube top said, “Yeah.” This was one Cutlass didn’t think would be easiest to dance with. Plus she was short.

“We have quit our mothers,” Cutlass said. “We live down at the beach with our friend Keiko. We’re thieves. We stay up drinking beer, have fires, and we steal whatever we want. We’ve come to take you with us.”

“That’s lame,” the girl with the broken neck said. But another girl with hair on her lip said, “Cool.”

“Yeah,” Cutlass said, “Very cool. You want to dance with us?”

“With all of you?” She laughed like he’d made some sort of mistake. Cutlass did not laugh. “With me first, then we’ll see,” he took her hand and it was soft. He moved her away from the rest of them. Together they swayed. Cutlass hooked the tips of his thumbs together, and put his hands low on the girl’s waistline.

“What’s your name?

“Clementine.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“Why?” Cutlass asked.

“I don’t know, what’s yours?”

“Cutlass.”

“Like the car?”

“Like the car. What else?”

She smelled of nail polish and chocolate. Her hair was up in a waterfall and his fingers felt dirty.

The other boys from the troop were soon dancing, and each couple was dancing differently.

Bean was so short that only his nose reached up above the waist of the girl he was dancing with, and Cutlass, seeing this, wondered how Bean had ended up with the tallest of the girls. Worm had his partner in a sort of headlock and was skipping wildly in place. Gill was grinding with the sad-looking girl in the corner. Somehow, a ring of couples had formed around the girl with the neck who was standing in the center of them all, protected from any further harm that could be occasioned upon her.

“We’ve got us a real nice beach,” Cutlass told Clementine. “Our friend Keiko’s probably getting us more beer. You smell like nail polish, you know?”

“Thanks.”

“You girls can come with us.”

“Can we just dance a bit?”

“Fine. But I like you. You’re coming.”

Keiko was back from the store with a full case of cans. He saw a young girl with black braids and dark nail polish smoking a whole cigarette and offered her a beer.

“You know, I’m not as old as I look,” Keiko said.

“Well, you seem old.”

“I can fight dogs. No problem.”

“Dogs?”

“Back at the beach. We’ve got a camp and I wrestle. You should come, Me. Dogs. Boys. Everything.”

“This is good beer.” She had never had a whole beer.

“Look. I’m their leader. That whole troop of guys inside idolizes me. We live at the beach and I take care of them. I’m trying to talk.” She squinted and really looked at his face for the first time. He looked focused.

“Meet my new dogs, come to the beach. Haven’t you ever been with a man with beer on the beach? No! Well, let’s go.”

The chaperones warned how they would not be allowed back in, but everyone was talking and hollering and the girls were saying: “For a little bit only.” “Just one beer.” And “Where do you get the beer?” And “What about your parents?” “Aren’t they worried?” And the boys said, “We don’t care,” though some of them really did.

When they neared the beach, Clementine was riding on Cutlass’s back and her little breasts jiggled in her padded bra. Bean rode on the tallest girl’s back and was mock-kicking her in the kidneys as if wearing spurs. Gill hadn’t even left the dance and was still grinding against the saddest girl in the corner.

They got closer and Baxal said, “Shhhhhh.” They saw an outline of Keiko on top of some little creature by the fire. The boys first thought it was a dog. Then they knew it was a person.

Keiko wasn’t being mean. He had a girl under him and her head was on the sand. She was whispering to Keiko and touching his face. Her fingers were thin and her black nail polish lit shiny by the flames.

“What do you see in the clouds?” Keiko asked her.

“I see a whale over there, I guess. And that one looks like a turtle. That feather-looking cloud looks like a dragon sword, and that one looks like a dog. What do you think they look like?”

“The boys are all gonna leave me and then the dogs will run away.”

“Keiko, you know I can’t be your girlfriend,” the girl said and Keiko jerked his face towards her.

“Then what are you even doing here.”

“Keiko,” Cutlass said, “we’ve come to watch you wrestle the dogs!”

“I know,” Keiko said, “I know. I know you have. And you brought the girls to watch. Now I won’t do it.”

“What do you mean? You always wrestle. These girls have come to see.”

“Then tonight I don’t,” he said and got up from the girl and walked towards the sea. They didn’t know what he was doing. He was big looking, even out in the silver hoop of wet, splashing in the final roll of waves.

They watched him push out into the deep, beyond the reach of firelight. Barely there in the moonlight, he was using his heft against the dark water.

The dogs got up from the circle and followed him out.

In the waves, dogs caught him and grabbed his arms with their teeth. He kept pushing out but the dogs stayed afloat, covering his head and arms. The boys heard him groan, and watched him fight, but soon there was nothing but dark waters and a pack of wild dogs floating on the sea.

“Keiko!” Cutlass screamed out. “Come back, now.”

The rest shouted his name, and waited for him to rise from the surface. Nothing stirred.

Eventually, dogs came back from the sea and lay upon the sand by the fire to dry. No one said a word. The clouds sank before the moon, and the beach grew even darker, except for a small circle of firelight. Then a great wind rose up and stole the ash from off the coals, and they glowed hot in their red and cracking shapes. Each one in the party stared into the fire. And they all saw different things, creatures and animals and skulls, swords and ships, teeth and heads and all the forms that have existed now and always, but mostly in the minds of boys.

Next story: “Neon Dreams”

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Luke B. Goebel is Co-Editor at the New York TYRANT, and until recently, a teacher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


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