On days when she didn’t hate him, Maria let Lloyd come over before his swing shift at the SuperX and let him screw her in her attic bedroom. The summer heat and humidity had started mid-May and by July it was at its worst yet. The little attic room had been the only space left in the cramped house when Maria had arrived at her Auntie’s a year earlier. There was no AC in her room, only a small pink fan she clipped to one of the rafters and pointed at the narrow iron bed. There was a small oval window that opened into the attic like a cameo brooch, and before she let Lloyd near her, she would open that window and pray for a breeze.
Then, Lloyd would quickly grab at her breasts and get all up inside of her, and she would moan, loud, like she couldn’t help it. It wasn’t that it hurt anymore; it was more like it surprised her, like having him inside was never what she remembered it as. Her moan would travel out that little window and hang heavy in the air above Heck Street. And if her Auntie was on the front porch – as she usually was late in the afternoons, sitting with her parakeet Tobi and fanning herself – and if she heard Maria’s moans – as she usually did, as everyone said Auntie Bern could still hear church bells in Old San Juan – she would yell so that practically the whole town would know:
“Maria! Stop having seeex!”
Lloyd liked Maria to be on top, and Maria liked it too because then she could see out the oval window, and imagine herself outside, free.
One day she moaned and looked across the street to the postage stamp of brown grass in front of Mrs. Laier’s canary yellow bungalow, where she was surprised to see a boy, in a lawn chair, sitting perfectly still.
After Lloyd left, Maria walked up the block to sit on the slopped lawn of Cathedral Baptist. Her Auntie didn’t like her smoking in front of her kids; and anyway, after sex with Lloyd, Maria liked being alone to drink the ice-cold Mountain Dew she hid in the back of the fridge and to smoke her Kools in peace. The boy walked by on the other side of the street. Maria could tell he was eyeing her. Then he crossed over and walked by on Maria’s side, acting all cool, like he didn’t even know she was there. Maria guessed he was around twelve. When he walked by the third time, she called out.
“Hey kid, what gives? You lose something?” He stopped in front of her.
“Hi, Maria,” he said.
“Do I know you?” she asked, shielding her eyes.
“I live over there,” he said, pointing to the bright bungalow up the block.
“OK, but I still don’t get how you know my name.” He took a sudden step toward her, and then as if thinking better of it, stepped back. He didn’t say anything, just stood looking. “OK, well, if you know my name, shouldn’t I know yours?” Maria asked.
“Tobey,” he said eagerly, again taking that sudden step forward. It made Maria wonder if he was going to wet his pants or something.
“That’s funny,” she said. “My Auntie has a bird named Tobi. I think it’s a girl, though.”
“I’m a boy,” he said, and Maria laughed, although she wasn’t sure he’d meant to be funny.
“Well damn,” she said, “I can see that!” Tobey smiled a little, his hands deep into the front pockets of his shorts, his shoulders all hunched. “Hey, if you want to come sit on the lawn, it’s a free country. Unless you’re not done wearing a rut in the sidewalk.”
He sat about five feet from her and clasped his hands around his bare, bent knees. Maria sucked down the last of her cigarette and blew a long stream into the heavy air. “You smoke?” she asked and he shook his head. “Good for you. Nasty habit. Don’t ever start, OK?” He nodded. “How old are you?”
“Thirteen. How old are you?”
“Tck. Don’t you know you’re never supposed to ask a woman her age?”
“It’s OK. Anyway, how old do you think I am?”
“Man, I wish! If I was twenty I wouldn’t be living here no more.”
“Nineteen?” he guessed again.
“Sorry,” she said, “only one guess per customer per visit.” She liked that he guessed older than her sixteen years, although she didn’t buy for a moment he ever really thought she was twenty.
She took a gulp of Mountain Dew and looked across the street to the house with the chartreuse shutters and the old beige mutt chained to the porch railing. It was a shitty house, even by this town’s standards, made even shittier by a total lack of care, and Maria had come to think of it as the saddest house on the block, maybe because she’d spent so many hours across on the sloped lawn, staring at it. If I had that house, she would think to herself, I’d paint it all white: the siding, the shutters, the trim, maybe even the roof and the sidewalk in front. She took another gulp of Mountain Dew. “So,” she asked, “how you like living here?”
“It’s alright, I guess.”
“Nah,” she laughed. “It’s OK, you can tell the truth. Who you living with, your grandma?”
“Yeah,” he moaned.
“What’s the matter, you don’t like her?”
He rested his chin on his bended knees and turned his head toward her. He closed one eye for the sun. “She thinks I’m weird because I’m a boy.”
“Boys are weird, aren’t you?” she asked, pulling another Kool from the pack.
“She won’t let me close doors.”
“Like to the bedroom, or even the bathroom. I have to shower with the door open.” Maria blew out the match and looked at Tobey as if to say what the fuck? “I overheard her on the phone say she knows what boys my age do by themselves behind closed doors, and she’s not having that in her house.”
“Oh my God,” Maria laughed again. “She’s afraid you’re a little perv.” Tobey didn’t react and so she had to ask. “Well, are you?”
“Hmm,” she said, uncertain. “So, why’d you have to come live here anyway?”
“It’s just for the rest of the summer. My parents have some things to sort out.”
Maria knew about that kind of stuff. Sorting out – it was never a good thing to her way of thinking. Her parents had been sorting shit out practically since she was born and they still didn’t have it together. She decided Tobey didn’t need to know all of that, though.
“And anyway, what’s with that bright yellow she painted her house?” she asked.
“Everything inside the house is yellow, too. She says it’s ‘cheery.'”
“More like blinding,” said Maria.
“Yeah,” said Tobey, cracking a full smile. “More like blinding.”
Maria got a job for a couple of days filling in for her cousin Monica at the ear piercing booth at the mall. Lloyd was plenty pissed because she didn’t get off until 6:00 and that meant no before-shift screwing for a couple of days. But on the third day they were back to the routine and as Lloyd got all up inside of her and she moaned and Auntie yelled, out the window was Tobey, sitting in his lawn chair. Maria half-expected him to wave. She suspected he had a crush on her, and she found it sweet. Lloyd was sweet sometimes, like after he got paid and took her to Applebee’s. Mostly though he just acted like a guy.
For the first few days, Maria had to ask Tobey to sit down on the slopped lawn, but after that he’d come and plop himself down without invitation. They talked about all kinds of stuff, with Maria doing most of the talking, which she found kinda nice. She’d never had many people around who wanted to listen. Tobey was a good listener. She knew that to be true when a few days after describing the tattoo she wanted on her ankle, he relayed the image of the little blue and pink butterfly back to her, detail by detail. Maria could tell Lloyd was a little jealous – not for any reason that made sense, but just because Tobey was another guy. “He’s just a kid,” she’d told Lloyd.
Maria talked a lot about Lloyd to Tobey, about how Lloyd only seemed to ever want one thing from her – although she never named the thing – and how sometimes she didn’t think he was good for her.
One day, Tobey turned to Maria and asked: “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Sex,” he said.
“What?” she wailed, tipping onto her back. “Oh my God, why are you asking me about that?” Tobey didn’t answer at first, but he had a noticeable grin on his face as he turned to the house with the chartreuse shutters.
“Maria,” he said, “how do you think I knew your name that first day?” Maria thought back.
“Oh my God,” she blurted with sudden understanding. “You little shit! That’s why you’re always sitting in the front yard?” His grin got a little bigger; and then sheepishly he let out a little moan, and then laughed as though it pleased him. “Oh my God!” she swatted him on his arm. “You’re embarrassing me!”
It wasn’t true. Sex wasn’t embarrassing to her; it was just sex. Still, she felt for appearances like she needed to guard her virtue. She could tell Tobey was having too good a time with it, so she turned the tables.
“So,” she said, “you mean a stud like you has never?” Tobey looked at her, startled-like, and shook his head. “Like not even a blowjob?” Still, no. “Not even a handjob from a girl?” She could tell she’d embarrassed him. “Okay,” she said, looking off toward Tobey’s grandmother’s house. “But if I talk to you about this, that yellow-crazy grandma of yours isn’t gonna hunt me down, is she?” Tobey shook his head and Maria thought for a moment. “Sex,” she said, “it’s, you know, nice. Most of the time. I guess it can make you feel loved. It makes you feel good all over, not just in your, you know, groin, but all over.”
“Do you do it a lot?”
“I don’t know. What’s a lot?” Before he could answer she said, “Yeah, I guess I do it a lot.”
“What’s he like?” asked Tobey.
“Who, Lloyd? He’s OK. Just a guy. It’s not like I’m in love with him or anything.” Maria surprised herself with this last comment, because she’d always just assumed she did love Lloyd.
“You were crying over him the other day,” Tobey said finally, and the switch in focus threw her.
“Who said I was crying?” she demanded, her spine stiffening. Tobey looked at her with his soft blue eyes and she told herself to let it go. “You know,” she said, getting to her feet, “you’re skinny but you’re kinda cute. If you tried, I bet you’d have no trouble getting some girl to give you a blowjob. Especially girls around here.” Maria looked across the street to the house with the chartreuse shutters and then turned to Tobey. “Listen, I gotta go. I’ll see you later, though, OK?” He didn’t say anything as she walked slowly up the sidewalk, but she was pretty sure he was watching. She didn’t want to talk about it – not even with Tobey – but he’d been right. She had been crying over Lloyd. It was happening a lot lately.
Lloyd got canned from the SuperX. He said it was because the manager had it in for him, but Maria figured he probably had it coming. He stopped by unexpected, just as Maria was finishing the pile of dinner dishes. He came up behind her and reached his arms around and grabbed her breasts.
“What the fuck, Lloyd? Not here, the kids,” she whispered.
“Let’s go upstairs then.”
“Come on,” she said, “let’s go for a walk.”
The sun was just lowering over the asphalt roofs of Heck Street. Some of the streetlights had buzzed on and the poplar trees rattled from the horny cicadas. A few blocks beyond Cathedral Baptist and Heck Street came to an end where the pavement met a giant log, beyond which was a mess of trees and vines, and beyond that was Bingham’s Ravine, filled with empty beer bottles and old tires and a shopping cart from the Family Dollar Store, and other peoples’ trash. Maria and Lloyd straddled the log, Maria in front, leaning back into Lloyd’s chest. Lloyd lit a joint and after taking the first hit handed it to Maria. His arms curved around her waist and his long fingers lay flat on her bare thighs just below where her cutoffs ended. The fingers lingered there a moment before they found their way under the fringe of her shorts, up her thighs and in between her legs.
“Doooon’t,” Maria cooed.
“What?” he said.
“Lloyd, not here.”
“You wanted to go for a walk.”
“A walk…” she moaned, and it was too late. His fingers were all up inside and she became wet. Lloyd began to chew on her earlobe. “Oh God, baby,” she said.
And then Lloyd suddenly stopped. “What the fuck!” he yelled into Maria’s ear so that it hurt. He pushed Maria forward and got up from the log. “What do you want?” he yelled at Tobey, who was standing in the middle of the street and staring back at Lloyd, who had his arms stretched to his sides.
“Lloyd!” Maria called.
“What, you like to watch?” Lloyd asked Tobey. “You some kind of pervert?”
“No,” said Tobey.
“Why you gotta hang around her all the time, anyway? You know, she already got a boyfriend. Me!”
“I just want to talk to Maria. She’s just a friend.”
“Fuck that. She don’t want to talk to you no more. Just get the fuck out of here.”
Tobey didn’t move. He was either being brave or stupid – Maria couldn’t know which. Either way, she was a little afraid for him and she moved from the log and put herself between Lloyd and him.
“Knock it off, Lloyd,” she said. “Leave him alone.”
“You’re going to take his side?” asked Lloyd, moving toward her in that way she’d come to know meant back-the-fuck-off. But she didn’t and Lloyd slapped her to where she could feel blood rushing like a million pins and needles to her face. And then, in just a flash, Tobey was on top of Lloyd – having sprung at him like some kind of wildcat – and he was slapping Lloyd with open palms, and Lloyd was laughing, but in that way Maria recognized when he thought something was funny only because he was superior, and in that way that meant something was building inside of him. And when it built enough, he stopped laughing and flipped Tobey onto his back and sat on his legs and started choking him. And Maria didn’t feel the pins and needles in her cheek anymore and she started wailing on Lloyd’s back and screaming like a motherfucker for him to stop, for him to hit her instead if he needed to hit someone. Tobey was twisting beneath Lloyd’s weight, and his arms, looking so small next to Lloyd’s, were pushing against Lloyd’s chest. Tobey’s face was still as he stared up at Lloyd. But where his face was surprisingly peaceful, his body twisted and writhed under Lloyd’s weight. And as he gave one last great twist of his hips, Maria saw over Lloyd’s shoulder that Tobey’s shorts had ridden up and twisted around his skinny body, exposing him. Maria stopped beating on Lloyd when she saw Tobey’s hard-on. Lloyd saw it too and stopped choking Tobey and jumped off him.
“What the fuck is that?” yelled Lloyd, backing away like Tobey’s erect dick and balls were poison. At first Maria could tell Tobey didn’t know what she and Lloyd were looking at. And then he took a moment and saw for himself and his face blossomed with recognition and shame and redness, and he jumped up cat-like again, and ran up Heck Street. So fast.
Lloyd stood there a moment, and then he started to laugh. “Yo, that’s one fucked up little boyfriend you got there,” he said, going back to the log, picking up his roach. “You better be careful or he might start stealing your clothes and shit.” But Maria was already gone, making her way up Heck. “Yo,” called Lloyd, “where the fuck you going? Oh yeah? Fuck you cunt. Yeah, go off to your little faggot boyfriend, he’ll probably give you AIDS…”
The sloped lawn of Cathedral Baptist was a mess of shadows and pockets of darkness, which was where Maria found Tobey, holding himself around his bended legs, his face dropped onto his knees. She sat next to him but he didn’t move, and for a long time Maria couldn’t say anything. She pulled her Kools from her cutoffs and lit one and after a long drag, she put her hand on top of his mess of clenched fingers, and then gently she tore his one hand away from the other and held it. “Don’t pay any attention to that asshole,” she said. “You’re too good for him anyway.” She looked across the street. Even in the dimmed light of evening she could make out the chartreuse shutters on that shitty house. “Yep,” she said. “You’ll see, Tobey. One of these days we’ll both find ourselves someone that treats us good. Yeah, OK. Go ahead, go ahead. Cry.”
This is a reprint of work originally published in Bop Dead City.
J. Edward Kruft received his MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College. His stories have most recently appeared in Bop Dead City, Eunoia Review, Bartleby Snopes and Soundings Review. He loves olives and cheese, sometimes together. As a kid he loved olives and Reese’s Pieces, always together. He’s outgrown that. He lives in Astoria, NY, and Asbury Park, NJ, with his husband, Mike, and their Keeshond-mix rescue, Aine.