(Falling Star Magazine, 2017, long-listed in 2008 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest)
His mother was telling him about the birds and the bees.
"Actually, men are more like wasps than bees," she said as they sat across from each other at the dining table. It was early evening. She had lit a candle for the occasion. It cast' an ungenerous arc of light between them, transforming their faces into ghostly ye1low masks floating in the near-darkness. A tiny brown moth encircled the little f1ame. Its huge shadow flickered insanely, monotonously, on the beige walls and kitchen cabinets around them. Above the table, pinned to the walI at eye level, was a picture postcard of a-bearded Jesus wearing a white and gold robe. His sandaled feet floated above the clouds in a pale blue watercolor sky. His head, Iit by a halo, was tilted to the right and his palms were spread in a gesture of infinite compassion.
Joseph was 10. His face was round and pale and lightly freckled. He wore his hair in a crew-cut, very much against his will. He believed it made him look like a fuzzball, Iike S1uggo, the cartoon character, Nancy's nemesis. He was sensitive about it. He'd even made a small protest the last time he was in the barbershop. It made no difference. The barber, with the oily silver hair and liquor on his breath, had shrugged sympathetically. Then he had proceeded with the usual buzz-cut as instructed by Joseph's mother.
Now Joseph was eating Kraft macaroni and cheese out of a cereal bowl. He had shortened the distance between food and mouth to the absolute bare minimum. His forearms were flat against the surface of the table. His chin was less than an inch from the rim of the bowl. He worked his spoon by rotating his wrist.
His mother was oblivious, for once, to his bad table manners. She just stared past him with her gin-Iit, caramel-colored eyes, and talked about sex. Her hair, like fine steel wool that has been uncoiled, painfully, strand by strand, was held in check by a multitude of bobby pins and barrettes. They winked tiny rainbow flashes of color in the candlelight, as did the smalI gold crucifix she wore on a thin gold chain around her neck. One of her hands was pressed against the front of her checkered apron, fondling the crucifix as she talked. With her other hand, she swirled a finger absently around and around her martini g1ass. From time to time she would take a gulp from it. Her own bowl of macaroni was growing cold, untouched, forgotten.
"At least bees die after they do it," she continued. "Wasps are such nasty, vile creatures. They circle, insert, inject and then fly off and do it again to somebody else. You should thank the good Lord you weren't born a girl. Believe me, it's much better to be the stinger than the stung. "
That very day, Joseph had come across a Playboy magazine on top of his father's desk in the basement. The study was strictly off limits to him. But he found himself down there a lot anyway, especially in the summer. The room was always cool no matter how hot it was outside in the Jersey sun. PIus his father collected interesting, eccentric junk: cast-iron toy soldiers, antique dueling pistols, a bayonet letter-opener and the like. AII these things were worth looking at and having around you, Joseph believed. Mostly, he liked to just sit in the big black chair in front of his father's enormous glass-topped desk as if it were a throne, and pretend that everything he beheld belonged to him and not his father. It was in this simple, regal manner that he found the Playboy magazjne. It was immediately in front of him, face down on the blotter. An advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes adorned the back cover. He flipped it over. A young blonde $roman with her hair in twin ponytails, clad only in a bath towel, smiled at him beatifically. It was the strangest, most alluring expression he'd ever seen on anyone. It was like she was smiling at him alone.
He spent the entire afternoon looking at the pictures inside. They made him feel very funny. The naked women were so pink and seemed so friendly. So unashamed. His throat had closed up on him. He had difficulty swallowing. He had this irrational desire to take off his clothes and be naked, too. There was a strange, breathless urgency to this desire. He wanted to somehow merge with the flesh on the page. It was weird, weird. He pulled his bluejeans down around his ankles. He sat in his father's chair at his father's desk in just his underpants and his New York Mets T-Shirt and slowly turned the pages back and forth, back and forth. The basement was made out of raw cement and was dank and fetid. The walls seemed to sweat. That was part of it too, somehow. To the left of his father's desk stood a tall antique Grandfather's clock. It ticked and tocked loudly and gave off a series of doleful bongs at the top and bottom of each hour. At some point in the afternoon, he stopped hearing the clock altogether. Time disappeared down some mysterious traphole. Hours must have gone by.
He didn't hear his mother come in. Suddenly, there she was, standing right next to him. He jumped up from the chair and fell over trying to pull his pants up. He almost clipped his jaw on the edge of the desk. She stood looking down at him, all five feet-two of her stretched nearly to the ceiling. She wasn't smiling. Her arms were folded against her black and white checkered apron. She was tapping a red tennis shoe on the cement floor beside his head. She told him they needed to have a talk. "Your father is just plain useless" she said, shaking her head in disgust. "Useless. I keep asking him to do it, he keeps saying 'Yeah, yeah' and it never gets done. Now this."
Joseph decided to keep his eyes on the bouncing tennis shoe while he struggled with his jeans. He was terrified he might accidentally look up her dress.
"Where did you get a hold of this filth? Your father left it lying around down here, didn't he?" Her voice popped and fizzed with indignation.
Joseph's throat was so constricted he couldn't speak. Instead he nodded his head. His hot cheek scraped against the cool cement floor. It was a pleasantly painful sensation. His eyes burned with unspent tears. He closed his eyes tightly and tried to melt himself into the coolness. He thought about the girl who dug herself to China using only a spoon. He envied her that spoon. A half a foot of concrete to get through, maybe. And then an infinity of soft, pliant dirt .
He heard his mother grab the magazine off the desk, heard her flipping through the pages, heard her animal grunts of disgust at what she saw. He heard the crackle of the glossy paper as she rolled the magazine up into a tube. He heard the hollowness of the tube as it moved through the air.
The first blow was to the back of his head. A red and gold and green sparkler went off in front of his eyes. He groaned and covered his head with his arms. The second blow hit him in the ribs and he whinnied and arched his back. The third blow was to his exposed leg and stung enough to make him scream. He tried to
compress himself into the fetal position. But she was kicking him now, too, and the blows kept coming in unexpected places. His limbs scissored open and closed, open and closed, exposing him. He pressed his hands between his legs and writhed on the fIoor.
Some of her words, through gritted teeth, came through: " Filthy boy .not in my house…evil smut . . . whores . . .nothing . . . but . . . filth . . . " then no more words, only strangled sobs until the magazine flew from her hands and splayed out over him.
The sudden silence came like another shock. He lay quivering and whimpering softly, his ears ringing. There was the strong metallic smell of blood in his nostrils. His mother stood over him. She was whimpering and panting too.
The silence grew until she said, finally, in a calmer voice, "I'Il make supper and then you and I will have a talk. Your father, His Royal Highness, will once again not be joining us." She pivoted on her tennis shoe and was gone.
They lived in a neighborhood of tiny cookie-cutter houses with adjoining backyards as small and identical as cemetary plots. I t was late evening, and the sun burned low in the sky, a dying red flame on the edge of the horizon. The insects had begun to sing with their high intensity, of gladness and pain. The incinerator was a rusted oi1 barrel, black and sooty inside. He began with the centerfold, ripping it out and crumpling it up and lighting a match to it. The naked girl with the twin ponytails unfolded gracefully and fluttered down onto the bed of white ashes. There she lay embraced in fire. He fed the small flame more pages, one after another, and watched in fascination as the pink flesh contorted and turned black and then vanished in the inferno. Night was fast drawing down upon him. Fue1ed by the glossy photos, the yellow flames turned green and blue and red as they leapt from the barrel, the colors mutating and brightening in the growing darkness. A cloud of maddened insects began to dance and dip above the fire.
Page by page the magazine shrunk, until there remained only the front cover and the twin pony-tailed girl' mysteriously reincarnated, back in her bath towel. Her face was tattered and torn, barely recognizable, but still, even now, her eyes seemed to beckon him. He turned his back to the kitchen window, where his mother was standing, framed in artificial light, watching him work. He pressed a finger to his lips and then placed it against the girl's paper lips. He held his finger there for a long moment. Then he ripped her plcture in half, then ln half again and dropped the pieces into the burning barrel, annihilating her.
"Goodbye," he said.