Sugarless

THINGS LOOK BAD for Rick Lahrem, a high school sophomore in a cookie-cutter Chicago suburb in 1976. His mother’s second husband is a licensed psychologist who eats like an ape, his stepsister is a stoner slut, and his father is engaged to a Southern belle. Rick’s only solace is his growing collection of original Broadway-cast LPs, bought on the sly at Wax Trax.

After he brings two girls in speech class to tears by reading a story aloud, Rick is coaxed onto the interscholastic forensics team to perform an eight-minute dramatic interpretation of The Boys in the Band, the controversial sixties play about homosexuality. Unexpectedly successful at this oddball event, Rick begins winning tournaments and making friends with his teammates.

Rick also discovers the joys of sex—with a speech coach from a rival school—just as his mother, reacting to a deteriorating home environment, makes an unnerving commitment to Christ. The newly confident Rick assumes this too shall pass—until the combined forces of family, sex, and faith threaten to undo him at the state meet in Peoria.

James Magruder’s Sugarless offers an entertaining take on the simultaneous struggles of coming-out, coming-of-age, and coming-to-Jesus.

Purchase Sugarless from the University of Wisconsin Press by clicking here. Or find it at an independent book store near you. To locate a store, click here. Or purchase online Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

See the book trailer for Sugarless

Book Preview

Excerpt 1

chairsUNTIL THE DAY I made two girls cry in speech class, I always thought I left no impression. My stepsister Carla, also a sophomore, broke the news at the dinner table.

“Ricky made two socialites cry today,” she said, smacking the serving spoon flat onto the mashed potatoes. The pud it made matched the phlegmy sound of her voice.

I looked up from my plate. Carla and I didn’t acknowledge each other at school. She was a burnout with low-slung torpedo tits. I was cautious, featureless, a bus stop stand-alone holding his breath, beneath anyone’s notice.

“Georgie Porgie, puddin’ and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry,” said my mother in singsong, handing green beans one at a time to my baby half-sister in her highchair.

“It was all over school, Sue Larsen and Robin Baver bawling in class,” said Carla.

“All over Herrick’s Lake, you mean,” I countered. Carla and her friends got high at lunch in a forest preserve across the street from school.

“It’s pretty creepy,” she said.

“No one told them to cry. Jesus Christ,” I snarled.

The Lord’s name focused my mother somewhat. “So tell us what happened in school today, Rick.”

“Nothing. I read a story out loud in speech class. It was an assignment. It’s called Oral Interpretation, okay? I did a good job, okay?”

“He almost cried too,” announced Carla, trying to pull her father in, but for now Carl was working through his chuck steak. Instead of holding his fork between his thumb and forefinger, my stepfather ate with it stuck through his fist like a drill bit.

“I was interpreting the story orally. Sue and Robin got emotional.”

“Tracy Sawicki told me you really got into it too.”

A smear of dried zit cream under Carla’s collarbone cracked with the heaves of her fake sobs. She shouldn’t have bothered with the cream. Blemishes weren’t a problem on the third biggest chest at Wheaton-Warrenville. I could have made instant friends by giving out her bra size, but then kids would know we lived in the same house.

“Nah, I was only pretending to get into it, like Steve does when you’re on a blanket in the arboretum.”

“Eat shit and die, Ricky,” she said, giving me the finger.

My mother shifted her eyes to see whether Carl would reprimand his daughter for her language. When he didn’t, she pretended she hadn’t heard Carla over Lisa’s shout for more green beans and asked me what the story I read was about. I sighed like nothing in my life was worth an explanation and stared at the orange coffee grinders and horns of plenty on the glossy wallpaper. Carl had picked the pattern. My mother called it her Polish wallpaper behind his back. So easy to keep clean, she’d say, making a tiny face.

“It’s about a kid who lets his crippled brother die in the woods during a hurricane,” I said finally.

“That doesn’t sound very nice. Why would he do that?”

“Because he’s ashamed. He pretends he doesn’t hear his brother calling for help and when he comes back, Doodle is dead and bleeding by a nightshade bush.”

“Doodle?” snickered Carla.

The story I read in speech class was called “The Scarlet Ibis.” I’d done what Miss Schuette, the student teacher, said to do, which was to pretend I was the narrator looking back on the accident. I was supposed to see and feel everything he described. She said to find a reason why I had to tell the story, to make my listeners feel how I had loved my little brother Doodle as much as I hated him and wanted him to die.

Reading aloud I pretended that the words were painted on the back wall of yellow cinderblocks in Room 100. I made eye contact with the foreheads of three classmates, left, center, and right, like Miss Schuette told me to. When it was over and I was heading back to my desk I noticed that Sue Larsen’s shoulders were twitching and Robin Baver’s mascara was leaking into a Kleenex she held over her nose. From under the clock Miss Schuette was giving me a big thumbs-up sign. Mr. Wegner, the real teacher, kept clearing his throat at the podium. It was obvious that until then I was only a name in his attendance book. He mumbled something about the power of literature, and then it was someone else’s turn.

Robin Baver, so popular she could talk to anyone she wanted, turned around, her eyes like wet beetles. She mouthed, “Thank you.” Crying in class at a story a four-eyed nobody read probably made her feel soulful. I hoped that her boyfriend, Paul Hicks, wouldn’t think this soft spot of hers was a good excuse to punch me out in gym class. I rushed the door as soon as the bell rang.

“Why don’t you read it to all of us after supper?” suggested my mother in her “Let’s make this second marriage work” voice. She was big fan of Redbook’s monthly features on family togetherness. Carla made a gagging sound.

“I left it at school,” I muttered.

“I don’t believe you, son,” she said mildly, clocking plates to see if the food was disappearing to her satisfaction. “I’d sure like to hear it.”

“Went over better than the artichoke speech, huh?” said my stepfather.

I stiffened in my chair. I looked at the thick, freckled forearm guarding his dinner plate, at the dead black nail on his right forefinger. My mother was smiling as if to say, “See, he does pay attention. Now say something nice back.” I stared at the stripe of red roots in the part of his fake blond hair until my eyes blurred. I’d dug the box of Miss Clairol out from under their bathroom sink as proof that he dyed it, but my mother pretended it was hers.

To graduate from high school in Illinois in the seventies you had to pass two quarters of what they called Oral Communication. I was presently taking Oral Com II. Freshman year we had started Oral Com I with how-to speeches. One December afternoon, after a girl made origami Christmas ornaments and a jock waxed his skis, I pulled a foil package and a thermos of melted butter out of my book bag to show my classmates how to eat an artichoke.

choke-smI wasn’t trying to be original. I just liked artichokes, which I’d learned how to eat when my mother was still married to my father and we lived in Downers Grove, a ritzier town ten miles east of Wheaton. I began my speech by explaining the origins of the vegetable, the two different kinds, and how long it took to steam them in a double boiler, a utensil I drew on the blackboard with colored chalk. I tossed away the bitter skirt of outer leaves, then plucked off some edible ones and sieved the meat with my teeth. After detaching the choke in one piece with a knife and cutting up the heart, I invited everyone to come up for a taste.

Not one single person would try it. I was so surprised I walked down the aisle with the plate balanced on my fingertips. Begging isn’t pretty. Mrs. Widmar took one to be polite and pronounced the taste “different.”

Different is the kiss of death in high school, especially gray-green chunks of it speared by frilly toothpicks. Telling my mother and stepfather about it that night compounded the humiliation, so naturally it was the kind of thing Carl Schwob, the licensed psychologist who held his fork like an ape, would remember and bring up ten months later. He checked to see if he’d got me. I looked to the right, selected an awl from the collection of antique implements my mother had hung on the kitchen wall, and punched a new seam in his skull.

It was Carla’s night to clear and load. I went up to my room, sat in my beanbag chair, and tuned my radio to WLS. I could hear my mother and Carl getting ready to go bowling with the McClellans. If my mother was still married to my father, I would be eating real steak, not chuck. My classmates and teachers would know what an artichoke was, and I would know how to wax skis.

I grunted through the door at my mother’s cheery goodbye, but then she came in.

“Is the skirt crooked?” she asked, knowing it wasn’t. Her frosted pink fingertips glowed against the acid green pleats.

I shook my head.

“I think it’s wonderful that God gave you this talent.”

God? Did Redbook have a religion page? I flicked my metal beer mug trashcan to make it ping. And what talent was she talking about?

“Funny it should be for speech,” she continued.

“What do you mean, funny?”

I knew what she meant. I didn’t talk until I was nearly three years old. Not even “mama” or “dada” or “gimme,” supposedly. Family legend went that I didn’t have to, so perfectly were my mother and I able to communicate without words. My father and her mother finally broke us up by sending me down to Grandma’s house in Washington, D.C., where I was forced to talk. It was that, or no lunch.

What’s funny is that all these years later I can remember my grandmother standing by the open refrigerator door in her long, narrow kitchen, and me pointing at the bright yellow bottle on the shelf in the door. I can remember the tickle of her bracelet charms against my arm as she closed my hand in hers, and the flowery smell of her face powder as she stooped to tell me that she didn’t understand what it was I wanted. What I can’t remember is saying the first thing I ever said—”I’d like some mustard for my sandwich, please.”

Little Rick could talk all along. He just hadn’t needed to. Or wanted to. My father thought that was hilarious, especially the “please.” As I grew up, and listened to him repeat the story of the historic bologna and cheese in Washington, D.C., I began to take offense. Had he thought I was retarded? Eventually the implications—mama’s boy times ten—embarrassed me too.

My mother, stalling at the door, was wanting me to say the mustard line now. I did that sometimes just to cheer her up. She didn’t like bowling, I knew, or the pizza after, or Ron McClellan and his permanent five-o’clock shadow. We still didn’t need words to tell each other stuff like that. I rolled my eyes, splitting the difference. She shifted her ball bag to her other hand and blew a kiss.

I went down to warm Lisa’s bedtime bottle. Lisa was definitely saying “mama” and “dada” and “whazzat?” I had a list of words I was going to teach her, starting with “birth control.” I was pretty sure she’d been an accident, and once my mother was pregnant Carl made no secret of gunning for a boy. I liked to think Lisa heard him from the womb and decided to be a girl on purpose. It made her an ally.

I was feeding her when Steve Hendrie came by for Carla. While he waited, I told him about Sue and Robin crying in speech class. He leaned against the wall and pulled at the toothbrushes of hair at the corners of his upper lip. He used to listen to my stories.

After Lisa fell asleep I went to my room and undressed. I kicked my clothes across the hall into the dirty laundry pile at the bottom of the linen closet. Then I removed the finial from the curtain rod holding the psychedelic rug up over my bed and withdrew a crumpled, crusty baby sock. I set it on top of the clock radio and started jerking off. I didn’t think about anyone or anything except how to make it last. It took seven songs on the radio, plus commercials. The first shot hit my collarbone, not a record, but nearly.

Excerpt 2

STEVE HENDRIE had been my friend first.

After Carl and my mother got married in August of 1974, the month before I started eighth grade, we moved to a brand-new subdivision. Briarcliffe sold seven kinds of house, all with bogus British names. The most popular models were the split-level Richmond and the L-shaped Somerset ranch. Three out of every five houses in Briarcliffe were Richmonds or Somersets. I had grown up believing that poor people lived in split-levels and ranches. Rich people had full staircases.

We lived in an Andover. A two-story, four-bedroom Dutch Colonial, the Andover was the most expensive Briarcliffe model, at $45,500. There were only five of them in the entire subdivision. Three pillars graced the front porch, but the window shutters were resin, the porch itself was unfinished concrete, and there was no center hall. The last two houses we lived in before the divorce had center halls, and now my mother had settled for a living room that led right into the dining room without even the possibility of pocket doors. The demotion bugged me even more because she acted like it didn’t matter. Less to keep clean, she said.

After a week of watching me mope, my mother pushed me outside one Saturday afternoon while she painted the laundry room and Carl worked at hooking up the central air-conditioning system. Up and down Kingston Drive, flats of lumber waited to become Richmonds and Somersets. Three houses had sod deliveries; their front yards were dotted with grass snack cakes, giant chocolate mint rolls drying in the sun. The littlest kids were racing down the brand-new sidewalks in their Big Wheels; the ten-year-olds were throwing dirt clods at each other through the ribs of half-built houses.

I walked around the block to Durham Drive with the vague idea of investigating a horse farm behind the south border of the subdivision, but the pillars of another Andover, this one with gray siding, not our goldenrod, stopped me. A boy was lying propped on his elbows on the driveway, a basketball pinned between his ankles. He shaded his eyes and said hey. Steve Hendrie was a year younger, but standing up he was two inches taller. His widow’s peak, his brush haircut, and his pointed teeth made me think of the Wolf Man. The dark hairs on his arms made my stomach turn over. Mine were blond and sparse. Steve Hendrie was miles ahead in the race to puberty. I pushed away the image of the Bower Junior High boys’ locker room, an all too imminent proving ground, and announced that I lived in an Andover too.

Steve said that his Andover cost more than mine because their lot bordered the Morton Arboretum and their view would never be spoiled. After he told me that his sister Tanya had silver-dollar-sized nipples and that his parents, who were chiropractors, shoved their fingers up their patients’ butts to fix their backs, I knew it would be easy to avoid shooting baskets with him. I had only to mention the magazines in our basement for Steve to heave the ball onto the front porch and fall in beside me on the sidewalk.

Covered with two inches of small white rocks, our basement crawlspace was home to Christmas decorations, tax returns, bags of salt pellets for the water softener, and Carl’s porn. He had boxes of all the latest magazines, but also every single issue of Playboy. He kept the ones from the fifties in individual plastic bags. Collector’s items, worth real money, my mother had said, scraping a spot on her pants with a thumbnail when I brought up the subject of what I’d helped carry down the basement stairs during the move. She never said I was supposed to keep out of them.

cufflinkspremier_2046_286123246I led Steve to the box of the most recent Penthouses and Vivas and Ouis; their pictures were raunchier. His knees collected a layer of fine rock powder as he hunted for beaver. When he twisted to reach for more, he’d swat at the light bulb string, thinking an insect had landed on his neck. Sitting apart, I played host, on supposed lookout for Carl. The real fact of the matter was that apart from the rare man-plus-woman photo spreads, known as Playboy pictorials, my basement pleasures were literary. Steve would zip through the pictures while I pored over Xaviera Hollander’s Happy Hooker column and the Playboy Advisor. In those days, Penthouse also published a separate magazine of personal experience letters called Forum that I couldn’t get enough of. No detail that the writers described to reach their identical destination—a mind-blowing, world record orgasm—struck me as extraneous or repetitious. I read letters in the gloom until my eyes hurt. Carl had books too: Casanova’s complete Memoirs, all of Henry Miller, and Fanny Hill lined up on shelves by his workbench. I didn’t bother with them, but one September afternoon, with Steve mouth-breathing in the crawlspace, I opened a volume of drawings called The Erotic Art of Japan that was sitting out next to a cracked fish tank.

The contrast between the blank faces of the Japanese couples and the angry, diving animals beneath their robes made me physically sick. Every pubic hair on the women’s quivering pussy lips was a separate, bristling spear. The hard cocks, every vein a river, every pee hole a gash, were a shock, as were the aggressive squats and jets of squirt. Turning the pages, I saw giant black dildos, an octopus sucking between a woman’s legs, a boy spread-eagled on a standing bald-headed monk, and everywhere the same blank, unreadable faces watching me.

I threw the book down like a hot potato. Thumbing through it, Steve said he’d rather look at real people. “Me too,” I shouted with relief. I preferred the soft-focus pictorial shots, women swishing cotton drapes between their legs or unhooking their garters in meadows, mustaches tickling nipples, sunlight baking a man’s butt fuzz.

For months of Saturdays, I watched Steve Hendrie tent his trousers in my basement. I watched his teeth, white as the rocks beneath us, the soft purple creases at the corners of his eyelids, darker in the morning or when he was sleepy. The same purple was streaked in the folds of his elbows and the backs of his knees. I was thirteen years old and praying for the hair on my arms to get dark, and everyone and everything was sexed up. Or maybe it was the silicone seventies that were oversexed, I don’t know. But I do know that because I was thirteen, I thought sex began with me. That the Japanese had been doing it, and doing it all those crazy ways for hundreds of years, was the most upsetting thing.

Excerpt 3

STEVE WAS A GRADE behind me at Bower, so we were only neighborhood friends. Cute, with a mouth on him, he’d been able to sweet-talk Carol Dudek and Kim Lacefield into the arboretum the summer before high school. My sex life began on an old blanket, spread out in an alfalfa field. The four of us would thrash around until we heard the ice cream truck coming down Westminster Street. Steve and I had to fight for it, but we were finally allowed bare tit with our hands. That got boring, especially with Kim, so the real goal was getting a finger in. If we propped their legs apart with our elbows, we could at least get an eyeful of where to bank our fingers along the edge of their terrycloth short shorts. The girls wouldn’t go near what we had, but we were permitted to hump it against them. We’d roll and crash, they’d slap, and I’d feel Steve’s back solid against mine. I liked that part best without really understanding why. Both girls wanted Steve, but Carol’s C cups gave her first dibs. This went on for maybe six weeks, until some high school boys lured them away with a bottle of Boone’s Farm.

Summer nights Steve and I would pitch a pup tent in the Hendries’ backyard and run like bandits all over the subdivision. I secretly called us the Andover Boys. We raided gardens and pretended that carrots tasted better with dirt on them. We knocked over swing sets, tossed lit lunch bags of shit from the horse farm onto front porches, knifed kiddie pools, and drove chained dogs crazy with rocks and firecrackers.

Then came cocktail hour. I had a collection of miniature liquor bottles, empties gathered by my father at the end of his business flights. (“Just one more way in with the stewardesses,” huffed my mother.) I had nearly sixty, arranged on a bookshelf, another distinctive touch to my bachelor pad. I’d funnel booze from the high broom closet shelf into six little Smirnoff vodkas and take plastic cups, cans of soda for mixers, and a peanut butter jar for a cocktail shaker. From one of his babysitting jobs—he was mad for money and sometimes filled in for his sister—Steve had swiped packets of brandy alexander and grasshopper mix, in case we ever got any girls to sleep out with us. We didn’t have the liqueurs on hand for these advanced concoctions, but we impressed ourselves with an ability to plan ahead. We’d swig three drinks apiece and flop on our backs until it was time to piss together through the fence into the arboretum. I’d sneak a sideways look at the tiny motion of Steve’s right hand pulling back his foreskin.

Twirling one of the rabbit-head drink stirrers my father had brought me from the Playboy Club downtown, Steve sometimes asked me why I didn’t live with him.

“Divorced kids always go with their mothers,” I’d answer patiently.

“But still . . . stewardesses. He’s a real swinger, your old man.”

I guess he was a swinger. He wore a Capricorn medallion, but it wasn’t a stewardess who did his marriage in. It was a cocktail waitress named Josephine, with kids of her own. Like Steve, my father wasn’t circumcised. He’d been born at home, not in a hospital. That was something of a secret—born at home, not his foreskin.

“He travels an awful lot. It wouldn’t work out if I lived with him. What if I sprained my ankle or something?”

This I would bring up because I wanted Steve to tell me again how his father had bathed him when his ankle was sprained.

“He could get you a nurse, a Swedish nurse with big tits like Little Annie Fannie.”

“Yeah,” I’d enthuse.

“She’d give you blow jobs.”

“Yeah.”

“Blow jobs whenever you wanted.”

“Whenever I wanted, yeah.”

The blow job on demand was Steve’s destination for all of our drunken pup-tent talks. At night, zipped in our sleeping bags, no light for magazines, we’d talk about blow jobs endlessly, and I would think Steve was testing me. I would hope Steve was testing me. I could hear crickets and the safe explosions of air conditioners changing cycles in the backyards, and I knew he had a boner too.

CARLA CAME HOME hours after Carl and my mother got back from bowling. I could hear the two of them arguing about it downstairs on Saturday morning. Carla, too wild for her own mother to control, had only been with us for two months, and I was getting used to the hiss my mother put on the words “set an example.”

But Saturday mornings were tense even before Carla. Briarcliffe’s exclusive Andover turned out to be a corner-cut piece of crap, so the Honey-Do list on the refrigerator had grown as long and tough as a dandelion root. The basement was always flooding, the sump pump backed up, the bathtub pipes leaked into the kitchen ceiling, the porch was cracked, the windows rattled, there wasn’t enough insulation, the grout was falling out of the shower tiles, etc. Whatever tone or tactic she adopted to get him off his ass, Carl always had something better to do on the ’69 Renault. He had spent the summer fixing it up for his precious Carla. Now it was October, and it still sat in the driveway, hillbilly style, its front end on cinder blocks, driving my mother nuts.

I looked out my window and recalled the spectacle of Carl’s chair-breaking mother and sisters popping out of the Renault like snakes from a can, an hour after the wedding was over. They’d gotten lost on 294 from Indiana. The patterns on their sleeveless dresses weren’t the psychedelic paisleys my mother and her friends favored; they looked like they were wearing tablecloths. Their hair didn’t swirl up like soft ice cream—even the gray-haired one had long drifts of ropy curls. Flapping elephant-ear arms, Carl’s relatives looked like extras on Hee Haw. When my mother hugged them hello, she was swallowed up like a raisin dropped into rising dough.

I went downstairs. As I was about to pass him in the den to get to the kitchen, he shouted, “What time is it, Marie?” If he was up, I should be up.

“A quarter to ten,” she answered. She was cleaning Lisa’s bib.

Getting out my cereal, I could see him in the booger chair, his hairless tits and stomach pushing through the lapels of his green bathrobe. I called it the booger chair because he picked his nose in it while he watched TV. The armrest was bumpy with his crop.

“Is Carla up yet?” I asked.

My mother shot me a look. “Do you want some bacon?”

“You mean there’s some left?” I said loudly. Carl had gained weight on her cooking.

She took a plate from the oven. “Do you know where she went last night?” she murmured.

“She and Steve tested mattresses.”

“Oh, honey, that’s just not funny.” She put her head in her hands.

Lisa, already tuned to household moods, started to whimper from the floor, where she was playing with some plastic bowls. I hoisted her up and blew bubbles in her neck.

My mother was having a tough time with Carla: the tight tops, the hip huggers that showed her pussy crack, the glitter eye shadow, the smoking, the Aerosmith cranked high for hours at a time, her disinterest in school or in minding Lisa, her ability to lie for hours on the couch without even a magazine for distraction, the lag in her response time to all statements and questions. Carla wasn’t malicious, my mother concluded early on, she was indifferent. She was a shrugger at life, doing just enough to get by, which was far more dangerous. My mother didn’t have to put it into words, but with the tag line “not living up to his potential” trailing me through seven schools, she was terrified that Carla would lure me into the cave of her bad behaviors.

“Maybe they went to his grandmother’s,” I said, not caring if that made her feel worse. No one had put a gun to her head to remarry.

Steve’s grandmother Hannelore was German, from Germany, and she kept Nazi banners and medals and stuff in an old desk drawer. She lived right across from the front entrance to Briarcliffe in a home called Martin Manor. When Steve and I were still friends, we’d visit Hannelore because she was good for ten dollars and whatever Steve could find in her hiding places. My job was to distract her by asking her to teach me German words. Holding up a knickknack, I’d say, “Was ist das?” like Colonel Klink. Steve’s mom said her mother hid money because of the German “hyperinflation.” We had inflation now, tied to the oil embargo—whatever that was—but Steve’s grandmother told crazy stories about buying one pear with a grocery bag stuffed with paper money.

My mother dropped the subject of Carla and Steve. “Do you have a lot of homework this weekend?”

“Geometry, that’s it.”

“What are you going to do today?”

“Dunno.”

“I’ll bet you’re going to add to your collection.”

“Maybe,” I said, smiling in spite of myself.

“Why don’t you take Lisa with you in her stroller? It’s a beautiful day out.”

“It’s a mile each way.”

“I trust you with her.”

“I’m taking my bike.”

“You don’t have to be embarrassed, Rick. She’s your sister.”

“Half-sister,” I corrected her. I drained the milk from my cereal bowl and walked to the door to the garage. I would have died to admit it, but I liked taking care of Lisa; it wasn’t her fault that she was half spawn of Satan. I just wasn’t in the mood that day. I’d heard pages rustle in the powder room. The booger chair was empty. I wanted out before he stunk up the whole house

Excerpt 4

muskieI GAVE UP hunting for my bike lock and decided to walk to Wax Trax. Things went missing in the garage, which was heaped with car parts and cases of motor oil. Carl had talked my mother into buying a side of beef as a hedge against inflation, so now we had a meat freezer and a regular freezer. I counted four tackle boxes and thirteen fishing rods, some still in their K-Mart bags. Carl was fixated on a fish called (here he’d drop his voice) “the muskie.” Related to the pike, the muskellunge had razor-sharp teeth and could grow to sixty pounds. Carl would bore us with news of when they were biting on Lake Superior. I’d have gladly gone fishing with him so I could push him overboard and watch the muskies devour him the way termites buzz through houses in cartoons.

Briarcliffe was at its ugliest in the fall. The sky was a greasy yellow-gray pillowcase, the lawns were hatched with dead sod squares, and the lava rocks were piled like turds around the bases of dinky trees wired to the ground. Walking past the Hegnas’ house, a Richmond, I thought about the night I helped Steve babysit there. We poked holes through the foil pouches of Mr. Hegna’s Trojans with needles, then went into the family room and took our clothes off. We had talked all that week about wrestling in the nude. The idea was that I needed practice for winter gym, which I despised. I was a freshman then and Steve was still at Bower. Even Xaviera Hollander wrote that boys experimented with each other during puberty.

At the end of the Hegnas’ block I turned onto Butterfield Road and walked along the gravel shoulder, passing Briarcliffe North, Arrowhead, and the white brick gates to High Knob. A three-pillared Andover was one thing, but High Knob houses, in clapboard and stone, not vinyl siding, started at $90,000 and their yards had huge old trees flaming with color. I spotted some burnouts in army jackets smoking around a drain culvert, so I zipped between cars to the other side of Butterfield. My mother didn’t have to worry about Carla’s bad example. I didn’t smoke or cut class. I was a C student, halfway down the aisle closest to the door. I had nothing in common with Carla except—assuming they’d gone that far already—giving Steve Hendrie a blow job.

Before we wrestled that night at the Hegnas’, Steve had shown me the mechanics of his foreskin, popping the head, which matched the purply color of his eyelid creases, in and out of the skin bag. I felt like I was watching a sped-up filmstrip of a flower blossoming. Maybe he took my silence to mean I thought it looked gross, because he said that his uncut dickhead was more sensitive than mine and so he’d always get more pleasure out of it. Then he said that the wide vein running up the top of my shaft looked weird. That bugged me, but I didn’t try to get even by saying his penis looked like a dog dick or the end of a doobie. I just wanted to lie down on him.

It wasn’t that I let him win the match. I was paying attention to the feeling of his body on mine; the moves I tried were designed to put as much of me in the way of his boner as possible. After he pinned me, his knees gripping my chest below my armpits, I didn’t expect him to force his dick into my mouth, even if I knew he knew I’d let him.

It wasn’t how I wanted it to go. I thought if I concentrated on using what I’d learned about giving head from the Penthouse Forum letters, he would give us the room to be in a man-plus-man pictorial. I wanted to gauge the effects of what I was doing, hear his sounds, catch the look on his face, feel the length of him against me, but the pumping derrick of his back and haunches held me in place. When it got too difficult to breathe, I made gagging sounds.

He was too far gone to care. Basically, he fucked my mouth. I kicked my legs up in an effort to throw him, but he held on, and my right leg slammed down hard on Nancy Hegna’s Fisher-Price Schoolroom. The major bruise on my calf was nothing next to the bloody nose I got when, after trying and failing to cough up his load—a futile face-saving gesture—I suggested Steve blow me in return. After all that talk, I had assumed the act was something both Andover Boys wanted to do.

Carla hadn’t come between us. Steve and I hadn’t been friends for a long time. He dogged her torpedoes from the first day at the bus stop. Four days into sophomore year I heard my mother answer the doorbell and say with genuine surprise, “Steve Hendrie! I haven’t seen you in an age. Look at you! When did you get so big?”

IN WAX TRAX I gave my best impression of nonchalance. I checked out the Fritz the Cat T-shirts until I made eye contact with the cashier. I nodded politely at the row of bongs behind his head, and he said, “How’s it going?”

On my way to the back of the store, I stopped at E in the rock section and pretended to study an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album until the other customers passed my security clearance. One time I’d had to wait an extra half hour until a girl from American history left with the Eagles’ Hotel California, an album I didn’t think deserved lengthy contemplation. Moving down the row I spent a minute with Jefferson Starship, then Kiss, and on to Led Zeppelin. I hesitated over the stenciled black-and-white cover of the first Manhattan Transfer album—too close for comfort—and pulled out War Child instead.

I carried Jethro Tull around the corner, past the swinging poster stand, and set it in the front of the rack marked “Broadway.” I glanced left and right, and then at the cashier. If anybody saw what I was looking at, I could shove the load of records back and sidestep to R & B with War Child.

Wax Trax had the sense to separate original cast recordings from film soundtracks. The music sections in Sears and Montgomery Ward mixed them together, putting The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly next to Guys and Dolls. I pushed my wire-rim aviator eyeglasses onto the bridge of my nose. My stomach fluttering with covetousness, I flicked the first white plastic divider forward and began:

Annie Get Your Gun, Anything Goes, Applause, The Apple Tree. Breath. Flick.

The Boy Friend, Brigadoon, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Bye Bye Birdie. Breath. Flick.

Cabaret, Camelot, Can-Can, Candide, Carnival, Chicago, A Chorus Line, Coco, Company. Breath. Flick.

Dames at Sea, Damn Yankees, Dear World. Breath. Flick.

Finian’s Rainbow, Flower Drum Song, Follies, Funny Girl, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Breath. Flick.

I knew when it happened, even how it happened, but not why it happened. That June I’d watched the Tony Awards on television. I had never been to see a play and was only dimly aware of what Broadway meant, but the musical numbers on the show cast a spell. There was a bizarre Japanese song with screens. There was a song from a musical called Chicago with a man who stripped down to his boxer shorts surrounded by girls with white feather fans. The show ended with the finale to A Chorus Line. The glittering white and gold costumes, the top hats and chrome mirrors, the high kicks of the dancers that went on forever—it all made the hair stand up on my neck. I moved to the floor in front of my mother and Carl so they couldn’t see me bawl. I was never a crier.

Before those Tonys I followed the top forty on WLS and WCFL, bought 45’s like Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er” and Manhattan Transfer’s “Operator” every once in a while, but instantly afterward my allowance had a purpose. On my next trip to Wax Trax I crept to the back of the store and found A Chorus Line. Then I bought Chicago, then The Wiz, then Pippin, then Grease.

I would set the records in a row around the perimeter of my room and listen to them in their order of purchase, A sides first, then B. Though tempted, I never skipped the slow songs, and I didn’t play favorites. The biographies of the composers and stars on the album backs or in the foldouts dropped the names of other shows, other glamorous strangers, some male, some female, whom I was destined to invite home. My room gradually filled with friends, friends who knew each other and had only been waiting for me to throw them a party.

No one needed to tell me how weird this was. My mother called it my latest collection, but this one I knew I would never outgrow, as I had my airline decals or my animal stamps or my Peanuts books or my Wacky Packages. Carla listened to Aerosmith, I listened to Cabaret, doing extra chores to support a weekly $8.32 addiction. “I’m getting this for my grandmother,” I’d say if a salesclerk looked at me funny. “It’s for my mother’s birthday,” I’d say to the burnout bandits who might waylay me on the trip home to Briarcliffe.

I got out easy that Saturday. The new cashier was on the phone to Ticketron the whole time he rang up album fourteen: Company, whose mod slyness had been taunting me for weeks. Company, whose cover, electric purple with red-orange geometric letters, gave nothing away.

Back home, Carl’s feet were sticking out from under the hillbilly Renault. I went into the kitchen to make a ham and cheese sandwich, purposely delaying Company’s entrance to the ball. From the chirr of the plumbing, I knew Carla was finally up. My mother shouted from the top of the stairs to say that my father had called and I should call him back.

“Later,” I yelled.

“I think you should call him now.”

“Later,” I repeated, and again she said I should call him right away. I walked to the stairs making fart noises with the squeeze mustard and asked her why.

“Just call him. He wants to talk to you.”

“Tell me what he wants, Mom. God.”

My father was getting married again. Not to Josephine the cocktail waitress, but to Julia, a Southern belle—his words—he’d met on a business trip to Louisville. She was pretty, she came from an old family that was going to make him an honorary Kentucky Colonel, and she couldn’t wait to meet me. A Kentucky Colonel, he explained when I made no reply to this piece of excitement, got invited to the best parties on Derby weekend and could watch the race from the infield.

He wanted me to say something. I wanted to say that ten weeks of knowing her might be no guarantee, since my mother and Carl had dated for ten months and look what happened. Instead I asked him if she was pregnant.

What shocked my mother he tended to find funny. This he found very funny. I could tell my acknowledgment that he was fucking his belle was a relief. It was like I approved. I asked him if she was a stewardess. He laughed harder. Carla walked by in a towel with a bottle of nail polish and signaled that she had to use the phone. I rolled my eyes. She made the jerk-off motion with her hand.

I had an alarming thought. “You’re not moving to Kentucky, are you?” I asked. My mother and Carl and I had taken a horrible car trip to Hodgenville, Kentucky, the summer they got married. Mammoth Cave was freezing and Lincoln’s Birthplace was a gyp because they moved the log cabin from its original location and it was under a plastic dome so you couldn’t go in. Worse, through a gap in the accordion doors separating our rooms in the motor court, I watched for a minute while Carl screwed her. The top sheet jerked down his back while he pumped, and her right foot had twisted its way out of the covers and lightly smacked the metal bed frame.

“No, I’m staying put. She’s going to move to New Jersey with her kids. I’ll get a bigger house.”

“With a center hall?”

“What?”

“She has kids too?”

“Three little ones, two boys and a baby girl named Susannah.” His voice made three ready-made kids sound like an incredible bonus offer.

“Oh Susanna, oh don’t you cry for me,” I said.

“That’s right.”

“What happened to her husband?”

“Well, son. He died.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

He and Julia would fly up from Louisville in a few weeks to meet me. We’d go downtown to dinner at the Pinnacle, the revolving restaurant on the top floor of the Prudential Building. I decided I would stick him with the price of a lobster, and maybe shrimp cocktail too.