The day that blahblah rolls into your neighborhood, he shows up out of nowhere, in the middle of winter. Of course nobody moves their kids in January, making them start all over at midyear, unless the reason is something bad. He is six feet tall with a rat face and a little brother everyone calls Fat Man, because it fits him and, on the inside, he is actually an angry, sorrowful grown man and not little at all. They both arrive on Stingray bikes with banana seats and spray-painted one color all over — red — because they are here from Hell.
At this time, yours is a nice street of decent families. But the Tet Offensive has happened recently and the entire Western World is still shocked at the pounding it took by the Mongol Horde. And now blahblah and Fat Man are here to wreck whatever is left, the neat houses and budding dogwoods, the crab apples and grapevines and the five-acre wood at the end of the street. Something about them wipes the smiles from your face the moment they appear, because you can’t figure out what they are exactly or why they’ve come.
One thing for certain, they take to you immediately like you are utterly lovely to them. You’re the prettiest girl or the tastiest sandwich. And you want no part of this, like everybody else. But it really isn’t up to you and that’s one crazy thing you’re still learning about your life.
Your life up ‘til now has been good. You’ve eaten a lot of cheeseburgers and watermelons and visited lots of cousins and grandparents. You’ve gone on vacations to Pike’s Peak and there are pictures of you there, sobbing from the extreme altitude but clearly happy.
blahblah and Fat Man change all that. They are two evil foul-mouthed creeps and your life is transformed. Other kids know what is happening to you, but the adults don’t. The actual nature of your actual life has turned obscene and your language has too. In fact, the chasm between your profane, chaotic life and the heroic, orderly one the adults think you are leading grows so vast and disturbing that you get quieter and quieter and finally become almost mute.
About now, you look around and see that blahblah and Fat Man are your only remaining friends. You then meet their only friends, Pee Pee and King Dingdong. Pee Pee is actually almost a decent kid whose real name is Paul Pepper. But he prefers you to call him Pee Pee. The day you meet them, you think they are just two kids named Paul and Harley. But then when Harley whips out his thing to pee, you see why he is called King Dingdong. And you? They simply call you by your last name, no nickname, which is strange.
But the whole thing is very strange. They know every minute of their company is misery to you. Though misery is not something they really mind any more than the weather, the season or the hour. Rain or shine, anguish is just there as a sort of backdrop. Your suffering is never more than perplexing and never less than what makes you you.
It ruins your life. These awful guys fall for you and begin to follow you around. blahblah — who has another name, but you will deny him that dignity here — starts turning up every day when you get off the bus. Smiling. Which looks so wrong on blahblah, like his eyelids are missing. He has this freakishly curly blond hair, tons of it, and he’s in your life and twice your size, and now try to get him out. You can’t. And the first time you try, what happens is forever burned into you and is not easy to describe. Because blahblah, it turns out, is secretly not a boy at all. He is actually a soul-killer dressed up in a boy-suit. He’s the type that hollows you out but then lets you live. Though afterward you wish he’d just killed you instead.
They have come to you from a faraway land called Southern Missouri. From the description, it sounds like a huge trash heap dotted with dead cars. blahblah hated it there and swears never to go back. But Fat Man loved it and looks on your tidy world with the eyes of an exile. Fat Man smells like Hamburger Helper because it’s all he eats and is the staple of fat and disappointed men. blahblah never eats anything, of course, except smoke from the cigarette that never leaves his mouth.
Together, they change your world from day to endless night and are always there, or hunting you. You feel dead because they’ve effectively blocked you from everything but breathing. And they can’t figure out how to make you stop that without somebody noticing they’ve murdered you.
In the meantime, life continues miserably for them and you, and they must go to school or the truant officer is after them, knocking on their door and calling and writing letters home in the most insane and dogged way, and hounding them every second until it’s just easier to go to class.
A typical day for you involves weeping and chain-smoking and collecting door to door for a charity called UNICEF (old people will believe anything) and then using the money for more cigarettes.
The moment other kids see this going on, they instantly guess the whole story about you and blahblah and Fat Man. And though it disturbs them that blahblah has killed you and is now parading your corpse around like a trophy, it’s the sort of thing they’re seeing a lot of this year. Pee Pee is the only guy during this time who tries to take you fishing and treat you like any other kid. But this proves to be a mistake, when blahblah finds out. Though it’s just how life is when a psycho loves you.
One night you’ll never forget is Halloween. The five of you are out together and you’re a ghost and blahblah is a vampire. Fat Man is a sad clown and Pee Pee is wearing a dirty T-shirt and dragging an axe. King Dingdong is smeared in ketchup and toting a rifle he’s been murdered with in a hunting accident. Harley’s uncle, who lives just down from you, provides the rifle, the actual gun. Though the uncle actually has a thought that night and removes the bolt from the action and then hands it over.
The person in charge this night is again blahblah, whose chief goal is to ruin things for everybody and in such a way that it’s never definitely his fault. For you personally, he hopes it will be the worst night of your life.
It’s worth noting that — one day soon — your family will suddenly come apart and you’ll go flying out of here, leaving blahblah behind. But not really, because the change he has worked in you is already permanent.
The night is a cold, wet, windy one in 1972 featuring five boys, one of whom is wrecking one of the others. It’s the height of the war and the bags are getting heavy with candy that you’ve been told to check for needles and razor blades when you get home. Along the way, it’s the standard hijinks that everyone gets as part of the basic American package. The moment the doors close, you kick in the pumpkins and smash them in the street. With your knives you carve obscenities in the garage doors and spray-paint the headlights of the cars. The adults don’t know you’re writing and doing these awful things. In their minds the whole evening is just a blank in which you’re scrawling BLANK YOU all over your own community.
One of you — it could be you — is heartsick because something wrong is going on here and nobody seems to notice. Harley and Paul love to whip out their things and Pee Pee is waggling his hips like a belly dancer and slapping it back and forth thigh to thigh. Harley’s is sticking straight up and looks like a cross between a cobra and an even bigger, meaner cobra. And Fat Man is laughing and running around Harley in circles shouting “King Dingdong! King Dingdong!”
But deep down, Fat Man is sad and often stares off to the left and seems like for a nickel he could kill himself.
Something about these memories is indelible. Meaning they don’t wash off.
You’ll never forget or forgive any of this and have developed a grudge against existence.
blahblah lives the night somewhat detached from the hijinks. His face is green, his womanly lips bright red, and he’s wearing a blond curly wig once belonging to his gone mother. And a black cape. When he takes out his thing to pee, it’s white and hangs there with no life at all. The days are a burden to him and heaviness weighs on him. He at last says, “God blank you, Blanks, stop blanking around!”
The object here is to lie about everything and to break everything. You’re headed for a church to take part in a sleepover with a scout troop you can’t possibly belong to, but do. Scouting is in panic mode, the numbers plummeting, and they’ll take anyone.
You have a bad feeling about this, but you can’t go home because it’s not there for you anymore. And blahblah’s company and so-called personality is like the vacuum of space. He can suck the life and breath out of anything and is a bummer. What he’s pushing for every second is for you to at last snap and start screaming these facts into his face. He knows already but wants to make you say it.
You never will. The truth is the last thing you’ve got left in this tangle of confusing streets, little sheds and outbuildings and explosions of weeds, brambles, muddy creeks and sudden ponds. It’s your golden thread.
Though you can’t escape. The first time you try, blahblah takes you aside where nobody can see or hear, and then he does something to his face. It isn’t too much to say his face becomes a purple sun with a white-hot shaking homicidal center. He changes before your eyes from a boy into a trembling focal point of inhuman suffering. Anytime you are ready, in other words, he will unleash this and vaporize you like a Hiroshima grade-school.
After that, you never give an ounce of trouble and he leads you with one finger, a glance. You now know that, if a thing like that can exist inside a teenaged kid, there’s no safety anywhere. You know everything and your insides feel like a big empty dungeon haunted by the ghost of a child.
Tonight, blahblah urges you along the familiar streets of childhood toward a huge Christian church where you were in kindergarten, a German word meaning “garden of children.” Tonight, this ship-like pile of brick smells like hot grease and frying Boy Scout donuts that are actually vacuum-tube biscuits afloat on two inches of smoking Crisco in black iron skillets.
Your scoutmaster is a big bad ex-Marine and he hates the very sight of you five, in particular. Anytime he sees you, he wishes he was still in the Marines so he could send you on a sucker patrol, west of Phu Bai perhaps, and get you blown up by Bouncing Betty landmines, the kind that cut you in half at ball-level and leave you alive to know it and to scream.
As you come in, King Dingdong’s eyes fix on something. There’s an actual girl here and she’s wearing a white pencil skirt, white tights, white shoes, a belted white smock with red candy-stripes and white-blonde hair. And breasts under the smock. This is in fact the ex-Marine’s daughter, who instantly notes you five because this party is a drag. It’s nowhere.
Fat Man is already off to the side, unscrewing and dumping the salt shakers into the silver brimming pitchers of steaming fresh hot chocolate. He’s biting every donut and putting it back and saying comforting things to himself. This is as good as it gets for him, when he steals a minute away from blahblah. Looking at him, you get a presentiment, a vision of yourself someday.
But now you’ve got a problem, because this gorgeous eighth-grader, Alison Weems, has started to dog the group at a polite distance, the taps on her shoes going click-clap-clack, click-clap-click. King Dingdong’s whole body is tensing up and he bristles in every nerve. He can’t speak or think and, swallowing over and over, eyes watering, is looking around like he feels the approach of his private curse. He’s about to turn to Fat Man and ask if he’d be willing to blow him for three dollars.
Anyway, it can’t be happening. It’s a nightmare. You troop right past Alison’s dad, the fat bald ex-Marine and when he sees you all, he says, “Look at this sorry blank. Can you even believe this blank? I can’t believe my eyes right now.” And he has such anger and poison in his voice, it actually cheers you up a little. The impotent hatred of those in charge is becoming your only happiness.
And as you exit, Alison is right behind you and gaining, and though you can’t see how it’s possible, she’s somehow leaving the party with you. But Alison’s dad, just home from Nam, is still deeply depressed (you later conclude) over what he saw and did. In fact, a part of him is still there and may always be. And though he loves his daughter, that missing part is resigned to the fact that we can’t save or protect anybody, and bad things happen regardless.
blahblah never turns around and looks back at the church or Alison’s dad or anything as you depart because nothing in the past interests him. He’s always known everything that’s happening or about to happen and stays more or less aloof and remote. Pee Pee is already goofing on Alison now, arm draped over her shoulders, the dull blade of his axe lightly bouncing on her collarbone, a red mark on her alabaster skin.
She talks a blue streak and smokes as King Dingdong jumps his rifle shoulder to shoulder, then drags it along by the barrel, then drapes both arms over it like he’s being crucified on it. Alison is what the experts would term “Male-identified.” She instinctively feels that men are right, that men are the ones unfairly subjugated by the culture, that deep-down men lack something and need women and are just barely getting by minute to minute. So when Pee Pee says something obscene to her, she only pushes him and says “Kiss my blank!” in her refreshing way.
Then it’s King Dingdong’s turn and he has his arm around her and is kissing her neck and nervously looking for someplace to drag her. blahblah treats the whole thing as if it’s exactly as expected. You leave the lit-up streets behind for the dark neighborhoods and the grade school. Behind this school is nothing but a playground and a long black hill leading down to an empty county road at night. King Dingdong is growing really amorous now. He and Alison are necking as they walk and she gets plenty of tongue stuffed down her throat and is knocking his hands down off her blanks.
Yet blahblah is the real problem here. Harley only needs to blank you and then he’s done. But blahblah has no interest in sex. His thing is finding ways to hurt you so deeply, you’ll never have a light, carefree moment for the rest of your life. He wants it so that, each time you go to smile, you suddenly recall what life is and feel sick and hot and like killing yourself.
Now you’re starting to look around for anybody who can help Alison — and blahblah has his eyes on you. For him, this is turning out to be a good night. In the silence, Fat Man says to you, “What did you do before us? Did you even smoke or do anything?” He trails you close and keeps walking on your heel.
Like blahblah, Fat Man can sense when somebody is starting to lose it and is an expert on sorrow and grief of all kinds. He’s jealous of any deep awful feeling you may be hoarding because he feeds on any kind of food or sadness or helpless trapped feelings around him.
Next, you pile into a convenience store, all six of you. While you steal snack foods, blahblah buys cigarettes using a note from his non-existent mother forged by Alison about a minute ago in beautiful cursive on the back of an envelope she found in the street. Men need her help with the most basic problems, all she can give, and she loves helping all kinds of men.
The night goes on and on this way, forever. King Dingdong starts naming off places to take Alison as blahblah shoots them down, one after another. Then he offers one last idea and blahblah and Pee Pee don’t say anything. Alison has a blank look like none of this really concerns her. “Oh for Christ’s sake!” you almost shout at her. “Don’t you even care?” But she will only laugh and say “Kiss my blank!” and walk by somebody else.
This is partly her compulsion, one she can’t yet control, to be naked and engulfed by experiences that honestly make her sick to imagine. She wants trouble and is miserable in her absurd, gored-up nurse’s uniform. The red candy-stripes are nothing but shaky lines of drippy fake blood.
blahblah tells her to sing something because girls know the words to every song. So she sings, “Shave and a haircut, two bits! I’ve got a girlfriend, two blanks! Every time I kiss her, she blanks!”
“I bet you think a lot about math and engineering and stuff like that, don’t you?” Alison asks you. You step back a moment mentally and try to absorb the question. But it’s rhetorical, because she goes on, saying, “My brothers will go to engineering schools, but not me. It makes you feel so — you just feel like such a blanking pig in this blanking place, you know?”
Naturally, she’s telling this to the last person on earth who could help her.
You can’t even go home. You see what’s going on, but can’t affect it in any way. Alison can almost see, but her courage depends on a certain blurring of her eyes to things.
Meanwhile, blahblah sees everything that goes on, that a bond might form between you two. He takes out the boxing glove he’s been waiting to bring forth and says, “Hey. Look at me.” And when you look, he lays you out in the street. Sucker punch.
Everything stutters a moment as you hit pavement. Alison tenses as if to run.
In the movies, you would pop up and hit blahblah so hard that his head rolls off. In truth, you simply get up and everybody starts walking again. Alison looks at her shoes and while she fixates on them life is okay. But it is a bizarre, disordered one, as devoid of peace or justice as a labor camp. And she’s with scouts, too, who have sworn an oath to be trustworthy.
Your ephemeral, fleeting bond with her is gone — or so you think.
As you walk along weeping, you must be hating blahblah, right? On the contrary, you’re thinking how much you love blahblah. Because his judgment and worldview are utterly correct. He has the power to flatten you any time he thinks he should and therefore he has the right. Later, you’ll see that your regard for blahblah was a believer’s regard for God. Your regard is why you’re weeping and why Alison is saying over and over, “God. Jesus.” It’s also why killing him never crosses your mind, because why would you kill God?
At last you arrive at your secret destination, and you all walk up out of the dark right into King Dingdong’s house and straight through the front door into his chaotic, messy living room. His mom, who might go ninety pounds soaking wet, is in the middle of the room and the center of the couch and she isn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. And her legs are spread so wide and up so high she’s actually looking at you all from between her own two feet. Her boyfriend, Roy, fully clothed except for his naked blank, has got her pinned in this position and is pounding his hips into her. Her tiny breasts are jumping along with the muscles of her mouth and she glares at all of you and you stare back at her as she gets herself blanked.
Nobody says anything. Then you all file quietly outside and down the yard until Alison yells out, “Oh Jesus Blank! I have got to get the blank out of here!” And by “here” she of course means the earth.
King Dingdong is now in tears and crying over and over, “That blank blank blank! That blank blank blank blank blank! And that blanking Roy will be my next blanking stepdad, sure as blanking blank.”
There’s really nothing to say. You can actually feel blahblah’s jubilation at this turn of events directly upon your skin, like a sunburn. He really loves moments of Utter Misery and Disorder. It makes total sense to him because he’s never had a good day in his life. This anguish is King Dingdong’s but blahblah exults in it, especially as King Dingdong says he’s never ever going home again, and that blank can kiss his blank if she thinks he is. And for the first time in a long time, you feel glad. You’re actually happy that somebody else on earth will never be going home again, ever. Because you haven’t really been home in about a year. Oh, you’ve been showing up there, all right, but you aren’t really there in spirit because of something blahblah did to you on the inside.
“And just where in the blank do you think you’re going?” blahblah asks Alison.
She’s been trying to edge away a few steps. And, again, you feel that awful pleasure that anybody, even an eighth grader, is trying to get home tonight and can’t.
“Yeah, you’re not going anywhere now,” King Dingdong chimes in. And here comes the bad part, because something inside you tries to rise up in protest. Some futile, failed little voice starts objecting. But the largest part of you will be okay with it if some key part of Alison never makes it home tonight. You feel brutal and righteous and you know that, at last, you and blahblah are of one mind. It’s a moment of stunning freedom and your farewell to this craven servility you’ve suffered.
“You don’t really have to,” blahblah adds, something you’ve known him to say in order to awaken a person to their own potential. It’s how he goes about liberating all these prisoners he sees around him and forcing them to realize that, although they thought they were headed somewhere, they’ve really been going nowhere.
“Yeah, and you’re not, either,” King Dingdong agrees. “We’re all going behind the school tonight and you’re coming too.”
“Why? What’s so great about behind the school?” Alison asks. But she knows.
The thing is, she wants to help men and knows what they lack and how they suffer and how they won’t make it a step without help. Also, when blahblah says she doesn’t really need to go, she feels the stunning truth of that on a lot of levels. Though she’s freaking out, too, over what she saw, and can’t process it. For the first time she thinks about killing herself.
“Don’t blanking argue, Alison,” King Dingdong answers. “Come on. We’re all going, even Blank.” And just like that, he says your name.
It’s a stunner. He’s put you in a special category, neither fish nor fowl, and stated clearly that you’re in a place you don’t belong yet can’t leave.
“Yeah, come on, Alison,” Pee Pee chimes in. “We let you come in the first place.”
Looking back, every night seems to lead up to and away from this one. Though it’s really typical of your years with blahblah, because blank like this happened all the time. He’s the master of the life-shattering moment and creates these scenarios without seeming to do anything.
Meanwhile, Alison is idling nearby digging a toe in the dirt and saying, “Yeah. I guess I might go. But Blank has to go too.”
You can’t look at her as she crafts this impossible position for you both. Of course by this point, she’s scrambling and trying to come up with any way to save the thing blahblah is after.
Now, only Pee Pee thinks sexy stuff will happen behind the school. King Dingdong, with that image of his mom like a bath of battery acid around his heart, only wants to humiliate Alison and then laugh and tell her it’s her own fault. blahblah is of course seeking something bigger and endless. He won’t be alive much longer, a handful of years, so he’s got a lot to accomplish. He will leave Fat Man, the little brother, behind and be forced to spend eternity motionless inside a small box.
Next, you’re behind the school on the playground with swings, monkey bars, and a slide. But this must happen way off in the dark, in the dirt and grass just before the five-acre wood. And she wants you there in particular, though not for protection. Pee Pee has already started in yanking and dragging her down to a sitting position. He’s grabbing her blanks and she’s kissing him and then King Dingdong as he paws at her thighs. As long as even a hint of sexy business remains, blahblah stays back because he’s never had a sexy feeling and doesn’t understand. His disease is now so advanced, he just wants it to spread so he’ll feel less alone. So he’s waiting and watching it all carefully and keeping a cigarette going, sucking up all the air through the burning Lucky. He knows this is killing you. Inside you are dissolving. Only one seam still integrates your personality and he’s picking at the thread.
At last Alison’s real trouble starts and she objects. King Dingdong covers her mouth and pins her arms and you erupt with a theatric wail, tears scalding your cheeks. These are tears of rage aimed at Alison for roping you into her undoing. But she doesn’t notice at first because she’s busy. Pee Pee and King Dingdong aren’t aware, either, as they work to get control of her elbows and knees that keep flying up in their faces. Pee Pee’s nose is bleeding some.
blahblah stares at the scene in consternation, because he’s worked so hard to change you into the mess you are. But now your agony might interfere in his carefully made ménage. So he gets vocal and Fat Man right along with him and they’re yelling, “Oh my blanking God, you blanking little blank! You blanking little blank!” But you keep going. Blindly and helplessly, you reach out hopelessly with the tips of your fingers to lightly graze Pee Pee’s and King Dingdong’s shoulders.
Gradually they become aware of a sopping, ugly, red-faced distraction above them. And they too begin to warn you, joining in the verbal attack. You’re called things nobody has ever called you. Yet you remain in reach of their fists, tapping their shoulders to ask a question you can’t seem to spit out. Now even Alison looks on you in disgust and maybe hates you more than they do. She joins in the name-calling while fighting the million hands up her skirt. Anyway, you hate her, too, and everybody and yourself and the world and life. You weep for something too abstract to name and fight for an objective you only half-believe, at best.
blahblah is beside himself, not sure whether to be elated by this misery or furious that your anguish is messing up a pet project. You both see a chance coming at the same instant, that Alison could escape from here mostly intact. He can’t decide whether to help Pee Pee and King Dingdong or interfere with you. He loves your pain so much, he can’t make himself shut you up. It’s his only weakness. Like a monkey with his fist in a bottle, he can’t open his hand to drop the peanuts, not to save his life.
It will occur to you one day that maybe this was your appointed role with blahblah, to stay close to him every livid minute and spoil his fun over and over and over again. That way, he can’t ruin others as he has you, because first he’ll have to open his fist to let you go. But blahblah can’t let go of anything, ever, not ‘til one of you is dead.
And now he is. Dead. Yet it doesn’t feel like it’s quite over between you.
On this night, you keep on sobbing and your grief is for you now, not Alison, and for some ideal that so infuriates him, he kicks you between the legs and down you go, into the ménage. Everything collapses, with accusations shouted in every direction and Alison screaming something at you and King Dingdong simply staring into the dark at that vision of his mom bent like a pretzel.
You are wrung out, wet, spent, and an awful specimen of American boyhood. Your friends think they’d kill themselves before becoming you. But that’s what people always think.
Mad enough to spit, Alison has leapt up, all grassy, and picked up her little purse and fled the scene.
All in all, it’s just another adventure with blahblah, one in which nobody gets what they want and everything fails and blahblah, who ought to be happy, is glaring at you like he’s realizing that he’ll have to kill you to ever be free of you.
Now it’s many years later. You’re a grown man, so to speak, but with this ruined outlook. blahblah is dead. The only one you still see from the old days is Alison, but not if she sees you first. When you happen on her unaware, she looks confused and troubled. Because somebody as failed at boyhood as you cannot still be walking around. One of you doesn’t belong here, and she’s almost certain it’s not her.
Michael Pritchett is the author of The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis (Unbridled Books, 2007). He is also the author of The Venus Tree, winner of an Iowa Short Fiction Award (the John Simmons Short Fiction Award) in 1988 and published by the University of Iowa Press. He is the winner of the 2000 Dana Award for a novel-in-progress for his novel, The Final Effort of the Archer. The title story from his collection appeared in the anthology The Iowa Award: The Best Stories from 20 Years, University of Iowa Press, 1990. His stories have appeared in Passages North, Natural Bridge, and New Letters, among other noteworthy magazines.