It would be two more years before I found out about sex, or aspects of such, from personal experience. In the meantime, I had the trauma of what I came to refer to as Bedbugs to keep me warm at night. Bedbugs was what I went to sleep hoping I'd have nightmares to cleanse from my memory. I guess I was lucky in that, with all the things going on around me, I began to lose details and it eventually became just a word—a word, and a frame whose nebulous, insensate middle swirled with darkness and shadows and scratches of sinister deeds like a Goya.
The resilience of youth.
Mom and Dad had trouble looking me in the eye for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t really blame them; ours wasn’t a family that cared much for an audience. In fact, like grief, sex was a topic best suited for, well, never. It’s not like I’d never seen them unclothed. I used to bathe with Dad when I was tiny, and Mom, well, if she had occasion to walk around with nothing on, she did. Bedbugs, however, was something I didn’t yet understand nor particularly cared to. Supposedly it was how I came to be, but I had a hard time believing it. There was just no way I was involved with that—business, no matter how small I was. I was pretty sure parents who wanted kids just went to the baby store, or maybe a vending machine, the mom took a baby pill, and that was it. Maybe Bedbugs was how they proved to the people in charge they were serious about wanting kids; anything that scary had to be a test.
The thing that bothered me most was why they were doing it now. I was told, by Mom, without reluctance nor uncertainty, I was both unplanned and, in a handful of turbulent circumstances, a mistake. Why would they want to take the Bedbugs test again? Did this mean I would soon have a brother or another sister? I didn’t know if I liked that idea. We, as a family, had enough problems without another kid coming along and upgrading our carefully metered chaos to cats and dogs cohabiting anarchy.
As the days wore on, and I went through them seemingly without irreparable harm, Mom and Dad began to dance around the subject of Bedbugs, sometimes individually, sometimes together. It became a middle of supper topic, or ice cream cones in the car in the Friendly’s parking lot topic; sometimes when a man and a woman kissed on the tv topic. And on a handful of occasions, a ride to or from school in the car with Mom topic.
“Do you remember?”
“When you saw us.”
“Me and your daddy. In the bedroom.”
“Did it scare you?”
“Mommy needs to know if you were scared, sweetie.”
“You don’t remember anything?”
“Nothing at all?”
“Nothing-- I want to talk about.”
“Can we-- talk about something else?”
“It’s ok, sweetie. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“How about a milkshake.”
“You want a milkshake? A strawberry one?”
“That’s my good boy."
I wasn’t quite sure which good boy she was referring to. Just that morning I was cursed blue for leaving my dirty clothes on the floor after repeated requests to put them in the basket. Perhaps over the course of a day where I spent my free time trying to get Chaz to draw armored knights fighting dragons with me or coaxing him to join us for a soccer match at recess and Mom at home, laundering, vacuuming, dusting and all-around straightening up the house, the enormity of my task, and the sheer monotony of hers, drawn together like magnets, effected some universal convergence whose completion somehow lessened the severity of my transgressions.
Or it was bribery.
It was well documented I could be bought, especially with food. For as long as I could remember, I had two stomachs: the one I was born with and a little hole beside it that became its own stomach. The one I was born with told me I was hungry, I needed to eat, picky though I was, and I generally heeded its instruction. But the one that grew next to it, well, it was the one that told me I had to eat something after a bad day at school, or when mom yelled and called me names and hit me until I couldn’t stand up. It didn’t really care what I put in it—it had this power to turn off my tongue and my brain so things I didn’t normally like to eat were okay too—as long as I did my best to fill it. And while putting food in my born in stomach gave me some satisfaction, putting it in the other only really kept me from feeling worse. Not only did this second stomach grow as I got older, it grew into my born in one until, to look at them, they were virtually indistinguishable. I didn’t think it a problem except second stomach grew so much it could never be full, never satisfied, and it got so I had to actively shut out the nagging, scratching, biting that were its reminders.
Not that day.
It was already one I’d just as soon toss in the trash with the rest of my undesirables, but Mom having brought up Bedbugs pushed me beyond remission. Milkshakes, after donuts, were at the top of my children’s book of home remedies. Friendly’s had one that I especially enjoyed, but honestly, any milkshake would do. It’s tough, especially to six year old sensibilities, to fuck up a milkshake.
Mom went through the drive-thru and got me a fish sandwich and some fries to go with it. She got a double hamburger, like always, and we drove to the park to eat. I normally ignored the ducks that swam around the ponds, but that day I wanted to see them. To my chagrin, they still weren’t back from having flown South, and my mood darkened. The fish I was normally quite fond of, sliced thin, fried and salted potatoes, even the soothing pink blended milk and ice cream were flat and unappealing. I ate slowly, careful not to look at Mom too long. She kept smiling at me and it gave me the pee feeling.
“How’s your milkshake?”
“And your food?”
Screeching, crashing cars and trucks and planes and helicopters in my head told me where the conversation was headed, but soggy sandwich, limp fries and chalky milkshake made the noise seem far away. Even the Van Family, the one I secretly wished was my own, screaming through bloody bits of broken glass and twisted metal couldn’t bring me out of it. I resigned myself to the inevitable and set my shoulders in lax anticipation.
“I talked to Mrs Greer.”
“She really likes you, you know. She told me what you two talked about.”
“Mmm hmm. She says Chaz is having a hard time and you said you would help him through it.”
“I’m very proud of you. Losing his mom must be killing him.”
“Maybe we should take him to see a movie. Do you think he’d like that?”
“Well what sort of things does he like to do?”
I had a hard time trying to articulate “nothing”. There were a lot of things Chaz used to love to do: soccer, movies, monsters, anything Star Wars. But anymore, being a friend to him was like being by myself in an empty room. I thought being friends was hanging out, doing stuff together, having a good time. Since his mom died, we were only really doing the first one and that was debatable. He didn’t laugh, he didn’t play, he barely even talked to me. He spent all day in a chair or at his desk, staring at the floor. Even when we went outside for recess he just leaned against the wall watching the cars go past. Most days I stayed with him, but it was slowly getting warmer and there were all kinds of sticks and stones just waiting to be launched between the trees at other classmates. I was frustrated and bored, and when I tried to talk to Chaz, his monosyllabic responses wore thin with me. I just wanted to kick him in the nuts and yell at him to wake the fuck up.
This wasn’t the topic I’d prepared for, but it didn’t make it a better one.
“I-- don’t really know anymore.”
“Oh, well-- what about the arcade? You both like that, right?
“I guess that would be okay.”
“Good. I’ll let your father know. Maybe you can go this weekend.”
“Finish up. We need to get going.”
I curled my lip at the thought of finishing my meal, but a little voice in my belly goaded me into another bite, and another after that. I thought about what mom said, about what she said Mrs Greer said, and about Chaz. I silently hoped Mom was done asking me questions, but something dark and ravenous quivered in the back of my mind, promising the dilemma with Chaz was only getting started. I felt my stomachs churn.
At least it wasn’t Bedbugs.
Mom was mostly Jekyll the rest of the school week and for that I was thankful. I had enough developing at school that getting it from the other end at home might send me over the edge. I tried talking to him about my dad taking us to the arcade on Saturday and, for what seemed like the first time, he was the least bit receptive. It was a few weeks since the last time I was there; the town I lived in had two, one called Starship and the other the Gallery, that were practically right across the street from each other. I preferred Starship—they had better games—but the Gallery was right across the alley from Pizza Bill's, which was, and still is, the best pizza ever and came in a respectable third in my book of home remedies. That made them pretty much equal to my six year old esteem.
When I talked to Dad about it on Friday, I was surprised to find out we would not be going to either of the ones downtown, but a relatively new one closer to where Chaz lived called the Boom Boom Barn. I thought the name was hinky, but it was an arcade, which meant it had games, and being new, would have the latest ones. As long as there were games and I had tokens, I didn't care.
Saturday morning rolled around and I was eager to get the walk to the bank done and over with so we could make with the taking Chaz to the arcade. We took dad’s work car, the Plymouth; it smelled like cleanser and factory grease. He used to drive a sandy-colored Camaro with rust on the doors and a broken window crank handle on the passenger side. I liked it better than the Plymouth, but it was gone; sold to a friend of my sister’s.
“Why are you driving this car?”
“Mom needs the other one.”
“I thought you liked this car.”
“I liked the other one better.”
“I did too.”
“Why did you get rid of it?”
“Well, Haley’s friend needed a car.”
“But don’t you need a car too?”
“Sure. That’s why I have this one.”
“But why didn’t you just keep the other one?”
“It needed a lot of work.”
“Besides, this is a good car too.”
“Huh. I guess it does.”
Chaz was waiting outside with his dad when we got there. His dad talked to mine for a few minutes while Chaz and I got in the back and I made sure he got in on the side that didn’t have the big stain on the seat. We sat there in silence for several moments; he seemed tired, like he usually did at school.
“We’re going to that new arcade at the mall.”
“Yeah. Should have all the latest stuff.”
“Think they have a party claw?”
“I bet they have one. I’ll try to win you something cool.”
“Did you see Buck Rogers last night?”
“Nah. Don’t have a tv in my room.”
“Oh. It was pretty cool. There was this guy--”
The Boom Boom Barn was state of the art, boasting two full rooms of upright games, pinball machines, prize games like the party claw and even a sit down racing game in the center of the floor on the upper deck. Even though Chaz brought his own money, Dad gave us each ten dollars and put a five of his own in the token machine. I walked with Chaz through both rooms, trying to get a lay of the land before I decided what to play. They had all my old favorites: Frogger, Centipede, Galaga; I even saw Missile Command, which was perhaps my least adored next to Pong, and I stuck out my tongue in disgust. I surveyed the prizes for the party claw, but was disappointed to find they were junky and boring and not as cool as what I was used to from the ones in town back home.
It didn't matter. We'd come to play.
With both front pockets jammed full of tokens, I set about laying waste to pixelated aliens, insects, alien insects and whatever else they threw at me. Synthesizer music pumped through my ears and into my blood, giving me an adrenaline high. Thirty minutes later, I'd barely made a dent in my funds, but my forehead was sweaty and I had to pee. I kept my knees together while I flew a jet through time, annihilating enemy spacecraft, from WWI style biplanes to flying saucers. I smacked the joystick in disbelief when the screen flashed "Game Over", but my bladder was grateful and I waddled off to the restroom.
Having finished my business, I washed up and headed to the door, pulling it open just far enough to squeeze by. I wasn't watching in front of me and something checked my shoulder as I pushed forward, whipping me back against the wall.
A boy younger than me, head down, shoulders hunched, shrugged apologetically and pushed past. I silently cursed his manners, but my head was still light from digitized euphoria, and armed with an empty bladder, I was set for a rematch.
"Whisker, what're YOU doing here?"
I slowed down and looked to my left to see Bashika, a girl I kind of knew from school, standing next to the Galaxian machine. She was older, and towered over me, even from a few feet away.
"Come over here."
She crooked her finger at me and, like a good dog, I padded over, staring at her feet. She wore saddle shoes with red ribbons threaded over the white laces tied in bows at the top.
"Well aren't you all hot shit with your big boy shoes."
"I guess so."
"Look at me when I'm talking to you."
I looked her in the face to see her jaw set, brow furrowed. Normally she wore thick-lensed glasses that made her eyes look huge, but not that day; they were normal size. She had her hair coiled up in a single, thick pigtail on top of her head with beaded hair ties that matched the shoe ribbons. Once she knew I was looking her straight, her face softened a little, and she smiled, all teeth and gums, and planted an index finger into the sore shoulder.
"That's better. What're you doing here all by your little self?"
"I'm here with Chaz. And my dad."
As if on cue, Dad appeared next to me, putting a hand on my shoulder. He smiled briefly and Bashika returned it, bigger, rocking back and forth with her hands twisted up in front of her.
"Hi, Mr White."
"I was just asking Whisker why he was here all by himself."
"That's very thoughtful of you, Bashika. I'm heading over to the book store for a little while; you think you'll be all right here with Chaz?"
I nodded quickly, catching Bashika smiling like the Cheshire Cat in my periphery.
"Ok, kiddo, have a good time. Nice to see you, Bashika."
"You too, Mr White."
Dad left the arcade and I quickly scanned the room looking for Chaz, but couldn't find him. Bashika put her hands on my shoulders and stood me in front of her, the top of my head came up below her shoulders. She wore a white sweatshirt with an applique rainbow on the chest. I noticed little bumps on either side and a small part of my brain wondered if she was cold.
"Are you staring at my boobs?"
"I said. Are you staring. AT. MY. BOOBS."
"Uhh-- no. Why would I?"
"You saying I'm ugly?"
"I don't think so."
"Why don't you KNOW SO?"
"Bashika. I need more tokens."
The boy who almost knocked me down came up beside us and held out his hand. Bashika craned her neck at him, lips parted, jaw aslant, and looked at his open palm like it was covered in dog shit. After a long pause, she flipped an open hand up flat against the bottom of his, smacking him in the face.
"Can't you see I'm BUSY?"
"Don't you Bashika me. Not my fault no one taught you manners."
"Ain't gotta hit me like that."
"I didn't. You hit yourself, stupid."
Bashika turned back to me, eyes slitted, smiling with half her mouth. I felt something shrink.
"This is my little brother, Damius. Say hi to Whisker, Damius."
"You out of money already?"
She dug in a front pocket of her green corduroy pants and pulled out a small handful of tokens, dropping half of them, and slapping the rest into Damius' hand. He dropped some of those, quickly shoved what was left into his pocket, and got on his knees to get the rest. Bashika sneered, her eyes never leaving me.
"Now leave us alone. Say goodbye to Whisker, Damius."
He scampered off and left me alone with Bashika. I dared not turn my head, but my eyes scanned the room, looking for Chaz, my dad, even an employee who might be able to distract her long enough for me to get away. The room was dark, virtually empty, and getting smaller. I was running out of options.
“You should smile more.”
“It helps to, umm, have a reason to.”
“Well aren’t you fresh.”
“I don’t, I mean, I didn’t--”
“Didn’t what? I’ve seen you around school, you know. I see how you look at the teachers, Mrs Perrin’s daughter, the other girls.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know exactly what I mean.”
“I really don’t.”
Bashika punched me in the shoulder, pouting her bottom lip. Her eyes were dark and wet and made me want to crawl away.
“Why don’t you do that to me, white boy?”
She grabbed my arm at the wrist and held it up, showing it to me.
“White. Whiter than white. You’re Wonder Bread white. You’re Casper the White Ass Ghost white. Shit, even your name’s White”
“It’s not like I can help--”
“Snoopy white. Hear that, little snoopy dog?”
“What did you say?”
"Little. Snoopy. Dog.”
“BASHIKA. Father’s here. We gotta go.”
Damius ran up to us and tried to take Bashika’s hand, but she smacked it away with a scowl. Then she shoved me with her palm and walked past with Damius in tow.
“See you in school, snoopy dog.”
And she was gone.
My mind reeled at her mention of the snoopy dog. It was not a topic I shared with anyone; to me, it was a nightmare, both waking and unconscious, I felt was mine alone to endure. I hadn’t thought much about it since Bedbugs, and my last encounter was weeks before—I found it at the bottom of the dirty clothes basket while picking up my room. I’d begun to think my problems with the snoopy dog were over. I’d hoped they were over, like only children do.
I would come to find out otherwise.
I hadn’t seen Chaz since before I left the restroom and that made my stomachs nervous. I searched both rooms and found nothing. Thinking he maybe had to pee, I checked the toilet, but it was empty. I was getting scared, wishing my dad was there to help me find him. I considered trying to find an employee, but so far the only one I’d seen was a fat, middle-aged guy with greasy hair and an equally greasy complexion at the prize counter. While I’m sure he knew everything there was to know about Space Invaders, unless there was a video game called Missing Best Friend, he wouldn’t do much more than slow me down.
At my limit, I stopped in a dark corner of the upper deck, flanked by the Dig Dug and Berserk machines. I was sweaty, thirsty and positive I would be in big trouble for losing Chaz. My fear was slowly being replaced with resignation, and a cold stillness crept up my spine. I thought to myself, this must be what it feels like when people go to jail.
“Where the fuck are you, Chaz?”
The voice was small, muffled, but it was definitely Chaz. I turned around and saw him sitting on the floor against the wall in the corner. It was so dark I could see only the tips of his shoes, which used to be white, but were scuffed and worn to a somber taupe. I squeezed between the game cabinets and sat next to him, pulling my knees up to my chin. He was sitting much the same way.
“What are you doing back here?”
It was the first time Chaz mentioned anything about his mom since the accident and a subject I had yet to broach, thinking a good friend was about allowing him to bring it up on his own terms. But it was something I hoped never came up. I didn’t talk much about Grandma, either, and my grasp of her passing wasn’t so much a concept of death as it was a deep, bone-whittling sadness from her absence in my life. Thanksgiving, Christmas, would never be the same without going to her house, sitting with her, laughing, telling stories, eating until we couldn’t walk and passing out on the couch to holiday specials and candlelight. Her house was sold; to whom I didn’t know. And we never drove to that part of town anymore, and especially never past what once was hers. Maybe death was as much her ceasing to live as it was her living in the memories of who she was in all of us. Either way, it hurt, and I didn’t like associating pain with someone I loved, so I spent less time trying to remember, hoping that it might fade to acceptable levels by doing nothing.
Where my memory of Grandma ached a tiny bit less with each passing week, two months gone, Chaz’s wounds were still very fresh. For him, time stopped with his Mom’s death, and he was doomed to twist in eternal, torturous limbo. I winced at the thought, but found nothing within myself to say that might offer the slightest bit of comfort.
“I miss her.”
“I miss her kisses before bed.”
“I miss how she made peanut butter and jelly.”
“Peanut butter on both sides, jelly in the middle.”
I felt a little better inside finally talking to him about his mom. I hoped he felt that same way.
“I want to see her.”
“What-- like at the cemetery?”
Chaz turned to me and looked me straight in the eye. Even in the dark I could see they were big and clear like a cartoon.