James by J. Edward Kruft

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We weren’t friends, unless you count that week.

Can a week be considered a friendship?

And then it is heard from a great distance that at not quite 46, he’s dead, and it makes one reassess history, and its influences.

I don’t recall who sneaked out first – if I stumbled upon him or he upon me. Neither of us wanted to be there: science camp, our entire 6th grade class.

Nix that. I do recall. I came across him at the firepit, his head bopping to his Walkman and, after he startled, he removed his headphones to Ace Frehley’s New York Groove. He was smoking (Marlboros he thankfully pilfered from his father) and he offered one, maybe to fill the awkwardness. He pointed out the stars, so brazen, something we didn’t see in the city.

That we’d been in the same class since kindergarten meant little. We were to each other that kid who sits across the room. No animosity, just full-throttled indifference. Which, they say, is the sincere opposite of love.

“My dad killed a beaver,” I found myself saying.

“Why?”

“It was eating our deck.”

He nodded and replaced his earphones. Then, we sat.

Next night, a cigarette lay in wait, which made me warm, and when I picked it up he surprised me with a Zippo light. I sat perhaps too close for he unconsciously (I like to think) scooched an inch.

“So,” he began. “What do you think?”

“Of here? Fucking sucks.”

“You ain’t shittin’.” He blew smoke from his nose, which was smaller than I had ever noticed.

“Was there just one?” he asked.

“What?”

“Beaver.”

“I think so.”

“Strange. They usually live in groups. By the way, what do you think of Braun?”

Jason Braun. Fuck him. I hated him, but everyone else held him up as a nonchalant Christ-figure: good looks, fastest runner, grades, dad who drove not only a Vette, but an Official Pace Car Vette. And, this being our sixth grade year which meant group showers after P.E., I could attest: the biggest, hairiest cock amongst us.

“He’s alright,” I hedged.

“He’s a fucking asshole.”

“Such a fucking asshole.”

So that not long after we took our last drags – his idea, I was never so clever – we sneaked back into the boy’s dorm.

Braun’s cot was in the far corner. Lucky for us, his arm was already dangling off the side. We put the janitor’s mop pail atop a duffle bag so that his hand perfectly submerged into the warm water.

And then we tore ass back to the firepit. We didn’t need to actually witness what happened (and it did happen); our schoolboy glee was found entirely in the doing.

“My dad,” he began, dragging hard on the old man’s own smoke, “made me dig a ditch from our house to the very back of the yard. Took me every weekend for a month. He only gave me a clam shovel. Yeah,” he said prophylaxisly, “he’s an asshole.”

“What was it for? The ditch.”

“He wouldn’t tell me.

“Shit.”

“I told him: this is your birthday present for the rest of your life. He said: ‘your fucking life is your present, and I can take it back anytime.’”

“Kinda fucked up.”

“Kinda.”

When the doe and her fawn appeared, we froze silent and watched. That my father hunted these creatures (or their male counterparts) haunted me, as it never seemed in keeping with his gentle nature (beaver killing aside). When I was finally of the age where I was obliged to decline my own participation, he was thankfully nonplussed. By then, I had already seen that four-point, gallowed from the garage rafters, awaiting evisceration, and I had wondered then as I wonder now: what is any man, despite their perceived nature, capable of?

Was it possible he was thinking that too, in our mutual reverie, watching the doe and her fawn graze on feather reed? I wanted it to be so, for I was just at that age when one begins to feel (or was it just me?) that the price of being loved was painstaking and total sameness.

Why? I will never know. But he felt a need to show me, unannounced, his erect penis. It was quick, just a sprite pulldown of his sweats. He was no Jason Braun, I can tell you. It was a man’s pinky, if I’m being kind, and surrounded by what I could only describe as down. I showed mine as well, flaccid with only a modicum more fur.

And that was it. No talk, no pre-teen experimentation, no lingering awkwardness, at least that I recall. As I think of it now, it seems ritualistic more than anything, akin to becoming blood-brothers. Only without the mess.

Just the same, we both smoked another cigarette.

On the bus ride, we sat together. People found it, literally, queer, as we’d never been associated. Braun started the rumor we were faggots together (as opposed to faggots apart?) and people tittered because it was Jason who’d said it and if Jason Braun said it it must be true and, oh my, who’d ever had real live faggots in their midst? And sitting so close, too. (In fact, I had noticed that when I sat next to him this time, there was no scooching.)

I was like granite, but he turned and said to the bus: “At least they didn’t have to bring me a new mattress.”

The bus driver nearly had to pull over.

And that was it.

It was spring break when we got back. And when school started again, I was to him, and he was to me, the kid across the room. Was it because Braun’s faggot statement rang too true, despite the heroic retort? I don’t know. I imagine he didn’t know either. Or maybe, and this is what I like to believe, it was as it was meant to be, a moment in time, encapsulated, not to be repeated.

Perfect.

Godspeed, James.

 

J. Edward Kruft received his MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College. He is a multiple Best Short Fictions nominee, and his stories have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Jellyfish Review and Truffle, and he is editor-at-large at trampset. He has dug ditches, delivered newspapers, and worked at McDonalds. Writing is much harder. He lives with his husband, Mike, and their adopted Siberian Husky, Sasha, in Queens, NY and Sullivan County, NY. His writings can be found on his web site: www.jedwardkruft.com and he can be followed on twitter: @jedwardkruft.

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