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The Boys That We Are

Matt Jones

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I watched them through a slit in the fence, a microcosm of wood so rotten and waterlogged that I could push my fingers through it like warm clay, squeeze it in my hand. I let the gray moisture into my mouth, the splinters catching in my throat, so I could not call out or speak without a burning in my eyes. I pressed my face up to the slit, my knees burrowing into the damp grass, the pixilated wood grain bouncing in and out of my peripheral. I saw three boys, three boys through a slit that would prove to constitute everything that world was and could be in that exact time and place. I saw three boys, dressed by their mothers, cowlicks in their hair reaching out to the sun like daisies, and freckles on their cheeks catching that very sun in pinprick pools that spilled over into wrinkles and hard lines when they grew older.

These boys were cruel and novice and boys in every sense of the word. These boys would grow into men that I would know later in life, men who were worse off than me in only the most superficial sense of the word. All would be married, all to wives that I would rather stable and board across the county line than share a bed with. All would have jobs that held weight, a weight that could only crowd the jowls and clog the arteries of a man who knew weight to be anything other than something that hurt to carry.

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One boy held a knee to the chest of a writhing and whimpering canine, a canine that I had befriended over the preceding months. The other two, leaner and cast like crumbling stone in the sun, stood over his shoulder with looks that ranged somewhere between devious triumph and inquisitive disgust, a coal shovel propped up against one of their thin frames. Often, I walked home with him through the alleyways between the houses, alleyways overrun with chinch bugs and tall grass and rusted wrought iron that snaked its way up fence boards and around gate posts like it was trying to grow. I called him Rodger because that was his name and he walked with me.

His hair was wiry and gray and grease-tipped and knotted at the roots. One of his incisors could not be tucked into his lip and always stood out to give the appearance of an ugly and misinformed snarl. My parents did not like Rodger, or dogs, and I spent many days after school with him between the fences, among the chinch bugs.

One of these boys was Joseph Turner, the one with his knee pressed into Rodger’s chest, the weight of his body breaking shallow breaths down into heaving sighs that eventually turned into quiet. Joseph Turner was fat and his mom was fat and his dad was a pussy and couldn’t integrate himself into a world of fat, so he often spent his nights on the porch with warm tea and a sweat-stained collar while Joseph and his mother raided the refrigerator inside. The men in our town were so tired. They spent their days breaking the most vile parts of the earth into ash and dust that they inhaled quicker and deeper than the beers that they used to chase down the dryness. They inhaled deep enough so that it would sit in the pits of their chest and collect into loose piles that they would breathe and cough into the air around them, so much so that it coated the linings of their throats and blew toxic into everything they touched. The women were the first ones waiting at the door when they came home, ready for open-mouthed kisses that rivaled sucking the orifice of a chimney.

Joseph’s dad was a teacher. He did not drink or make love but I’d seen him crying many times.

It was hard for me to sit there behind my slit, that infinitesimal tear so gaping it could pull you through with the force of a black hole and shred your being into lunchmeat. However, that is what I did. I knelt in the grass and did not make a peep when Joseph Turner raised the coal shovel high above his head. I did not move a muscle when he brought it down once and then twice and then a third time, cracking what was surely the larynx. And I surely did not bat an eye when he looked through that slit with an expression that could suck the stitches off of a freshly sewn wound. Instead, I went to a sleepover at his house in the sixth grade, one where Mr. Turner made nice eyes at me and traced my skin so that it tingled while the other boys disemboweled nascent rodents born in a bubbling broth under the gooey glow of the moon. I got drunk with him in the eighth grade and many times after that. We chased the same girls and played on the same baseball team in high school. We bummed cigarettes off each other and spent late nights lamenting the fate of our town. During a party after high school graduation, I told him his dad was a faggot and he said he knew, and he said that I was a faggot too. I told him that he killed my dog and he said that it wasn’t my dog and we were never friends again after that, or before that. Just stuck in the same town.

However, before all of this, on the day of Rodger’s death, I did not go home. I stared through the slit until the sun fell and I could no longer see the tiny mass of gray hair, speckled red. I walked between the alleyways and the biting chinch bugs avoided my blood for they would have died of sadness if they took a taste. I walked past the houses out on the main road, the one that took the men away every morning to journey down to the molten center of the earth so they could beat on solid stone until their knuckles bloomed purple and their respiratory systems were transformed into an anomaly of modern science and an adaptation of brute industry.

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I walked out into the mines, the mountains and the mounds of ashen rock dust and gray matter. I took a lift down the central mineshaft, the cables reeling in agony as they made their way further into a system of tiny tunnels that had been chipped away by those men, our men, the ones whose knuckles bloomed purple from the work and blossomed a blackness that grew like loosestrife into their lungs until the day the mine closed. When the lift got to the bottom, I could no longer see. I did not bring a light, and instead placed my hand on the wall and walked, the jagged lines of the rock smooth on my fingertips. I walked in the pitch black for over an hour. Eventually, I placed my forehead on the cool surface of the stone and screamed, hoping that the weight of it all might crush me into such a fine spray that I could be swallowed by someone on the next shift and coughed back out into the sun and float into a layer of the atmosphere free of toxicity. When that didn’t happen, I sprinted off in a direction that I thought would lead me to an exit. I made it about four feet and crushed my nose so hard that I spent the next week and a half sneezing up loose gobs of blood and bone that looked more like melted lipstick and pepper flakes than anything else. They found me there the next morning and my dad grounded me for what would have seemed like a lifetime if I had been missing anything.

The next couple of months after Rodger died constituted the summer before the sixth grade. I spent the majority of my time throwing gravel at the side of my dad’s car, the passenger side door left pockmarked with nickel-deep dings that could only be seen in particular angles of the sun.

School started in September and Joseph Turner was fifteen pounds heavier and half a foot taller and I would spend the night at his house in a few weeks.

When class let out, I made my way back to the slit and knelt down in the shallow grooves of the dirt, made from my knees each day before that one. I pressed my face close enough to the slit that the wood splinters looked like tiny twigs floating aimlessly in the fluid of my eye. I knelt there through rain and sun and snow and market collapses and new millenniums. I knelt there until the slit was no longer a slit and just an open space where a fence had fallen and melded into the earth. I knelt there until the space was filled with concrete and the pattering of small feet and the squeaky groan of shopping cart wheels. I knelt there until my shoulders were broad and my voice had deepened and my father had gone. I knelt there until Joseph Turner was married and had kids of his own and his father had gone and I never blinked.

All rights reserved to Matt Jones.

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