Boys Will Be Boys
by Jennifer Doll
Tenna looked out of her window. There they were again, those boys, gathered as they had gathered every dusky evening since summer began, to circle a section of the playground where some old Michelin tires had been stacked on top of each other to form a precarious rubber clubhouse. There they conducted mini-man meetings, budding testosterone-infused events that Tenna imagined as the early predecessors to poker nights, strip-clubs and cigars, afternoons at Rotary. Even from inside she could hear them hoot and holler, slapping hands to mouths in imitation of an aboriginal war cry, stamping about the dusty earth and leaving clouds of smoky air in their wakes.
There was usually an animal involved at these twilight meetings, trapped by means of glass jar or butterfly net the weaponry of the under-ten set. It would be poked and prodded, tormented. Sometimes it would die at the hands of its captors, who were never held responsible, being nothing more than bored little boys experimenting with their own latent power. Tenna has walked there with her dogs on the occasional late evening when she can’t sleep, and more than once she has found tiny bones, like those of frogs or mice, revealed by flashlight to be lying amid the dirt and pebbles of the playground.
For six months Tenna has lived in this house, with its large bay window facing the semi-abandoned playground of an abandoned elementary school (the school having moved to a larger endowment, a better section of town, and a larger building, naturally). She moved there in December, to a new town and a new job. It was an ironic time for a fresh start,
with winter just beginning to assault the outside world. By mid-month, it had covered the tires, the trees, and in fact, the whole playground, save the skeletal limbs of the swingset, with a coat of snow. Tenna hibernated, and the boys didn’t come out then, either; instead staying in their own backyards to whack the heads off of snowmen, and, on a few daring missions, journeying out to the streets to pelt cars with snowballs that had rocks frozen inside.
But it was June and pleasant now, summer vacation releasing children and their boundless energy into the world 24 hours a day, and the boys were back to what Tenna assumed was their traditional warm-weather place of play. Tenna couldn’t help but watch them; the bay window was perfectly positioned, large as a high-tech flat screen TV, and she was safely inside yet privy to every happening. There were evenings when she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the better-than-soap-opera of the outside world and would forget to make dinner or even feed the dogs.
Lhasa, Tenna’s Lhasa Apso, laid her head on the cushion of the window seat and whined. Tenna stroked the dog’s head absentmindedly, her gaze focused on the activities outside of the window. “What’s wrong?” she said. At the sound of her voice, her second dog, a tiny Schnauzer named Gilligan, rushed into the room. The dogs were aggressively jealous of one another, sparing neither mercy nor dignity to get her attention when it was directed at the other. Gilligan barked and, when Tenna failed to acknowledge his presence in a way adequate to his canine mind, squatted and defecated on the pale shag carpeting that covered the floor.
“Oh, shit!” said Tenna, jumping up. Gilligan ran and Lhasa followed, pausing for a second to sniff the fresh poo on the floor.
Tenna went to the kitchen to get some paper towels and disinfectant, cursing her dog all the way. Gilligan had been doing this sort of thing a lot lately: biting the little girl next door, throwing up in the laundry room, and now this. “You are a brat, dog,” Tenna said loudly. “Gilligan, you hear me? I am very mad at you.” No answer, but there never was.
When Tenna finished cleaning up the mess and sat down again in the window seat with a book and a glass of wine, the boys were gone, called to dinner by put-upon mothers and brutalized babysitters. Tenna thought she saw a trace of movement at the tires, something very faint wind in the grass, an involuntary rustling of nature but it faded and she turned to her book, staring at the pages in hopes that such an activity would transform itself into actual reading.
Tenna was not sure where her life was going, but she was sure that it wasn’t going anywhere very fast. She knew the facts: she was forty-two years old, she owned a house, one dog who couldn’t control himself and one who (so far) could, a dishwasher and a washer-dryer. She was gainfully employed at a gainfully dull company, a place that manufactured customized paper products for birthdays and holiday events. She created the prototype designs for the Halloween line, decorating plates with curvaceous pumpkins and phallic broomsticks, napkins with honker-nosed witches and the occasional sexy warlock. Her boss and coworkers liked her, she was decently paid, she was in late and home early.
But Tenna was bored out of her mind. She was irresponsibly bored, in a way that refused to be remedied by volunteering in a soup kitchen or visiting Paris or taking a pottery class. And dating, though recommended by friends and family, seemed a futile task considering what she could already tell were the useless and semi-useless men in town. What was the point, anyway? Inevitably, relationships ended, peeling off layers you didn’t even know you had, leaving you raw and prone to infection. Tenna had tried it all and she was tired of it all. She was stunned but placated by her lethargy, unable to rise from the couch of her own psyche because she was just too damn lazy. And didn’t feel like it.
“I am at a crossroads,” Tenna said out loud, testing the theory of the words upon her opened ear and wondering, briefly, if it might be too late to be searching for a turning point. She closed her book in disgust, having not accomplished a single sentence, and went to bed.
The next morning Tenna woke up an hour earlier than usual and found herself unable to get back to sleep. She was in the middle of some yogic stretching exercises or what she imagined as yogic; really it was just a few moves she’d copied from the front of a magazine in the supermarket checkout aisle when she craned her neck for a bit of added zen and ended up looking out of the window.
Outside, halfway between Tenna’s house and the old playground, was Mrs. Ribbels, Tenna’s aging neighbor, a woman with a large collection of cats (both real and porcelain) and gardening equipment. Mrs. Ribbels was a widow with a couple of grown kids somewhere out west. She babied her pets obsessively, often dressing them in clothes that her children had worn and pushing them around the block in an ancient stroller. She was wringing her hands like Lady Macbeth, but with genuine tears running down her face. Tenna pulled on some sweatpants and a t-shirt and went outside.
At the sound of the door closing, Mrs. Ribbels looked up from the section of grass at which she’d fixed her stare for the last five minutes. “Oh, Tenna!” she said. “Oh, come quick!”
Tenna rushed to the lady’s side, putting an arm around her to support her. “What’s going on, Mrs. Ribbels? Are you okay?”
“My baby is missing.”
“You mean, your grandbaby?” Tenna had been shown photos of the eldest Ribbels daughter and her year-old child a few weeks ago and was all-too aware of the dangers to children in today’s society. “Is something wrong with Melinda’s baby?”
“No, no, no. My sweetie, my little Babykins, is gone. She went out prowling a few nights ago and never came back, and now look!” Mrs. Ribbels pointed to the ground, where a tuft of fur, smooth and cottony, clung to a cluster of monkeygrass.
“Oh, Mrs. Ribbels, I’m sure that’s just some fur she was shedding,” said Tenna. “It’s only a little bit, cats do that all the time.”
“But where is she? She never takes off like this. Have you seen her? Do you think one of your dogs…” Mrs. Ribbels shuddered at the thought that she couldn’t finish.
“Gilligan and Lhasa are big softies,” said Tenna. “No way they would hurt a cat. They’re terrified of squirrels, even.”
Tenna took her neighbor by the shoulder and turned her gently toward her own house. “How about you go make yourself a nice cup of tea and relax? The kitty will be back soon. I’ll keep an eye out for her, just in case.”
Mrs. Ribbels nodded and began the slow trudge back to her house, her shoulders low and rounded. Tenna felt a twinge of guilt. She was not at all sure the cat would be back, but she didn’t know what to say to the woman. It was time to go to work, anyway.
When she got home from her day at Paper, Ink., where she’d spent the day trying to draw a ghost spooky-yet-appealing enough to rival Casper-the-friendly, there was a folded piece of paper taped to her door. She pulled it off and went inside, stepping out of her shoes at the same time she noticed and nearly landed in a puddle of urine on the tile floor of her foyer.
“Damn it,” she yelled. “Gilligan!”
As usual, he was nowhere to be found, but Lhasa appeared, tongue hanging from mouth, to lick Tenna on the feet and sniff at the liquid on the floor. She pet the dog on the head and talked to it quietly for a few moments, hoping that Gilligan would appear. When there was no sign of him, she opened up the piece of paper. It was an ad promoting a neighborhood child’s services. “Odd-Job Jimmy,” it said, “Will do CHORES for CHEAP.” There was a crude illustration of a stick figure walking a stick dog next to a bullet-pointed list of Jimmy’s skills. The kid could rake leaves, clean gutters, polish shoes, wash cars, and, of course, exercise pets.
Well, thought Tenna, it just goes to show. When you thought that the youth of today had hit rock bottom, here was a kid with some get-up-and-go, some of that enterprising spirit that made America what it was, or what it used to be. She stuck the flyer to the refrigerator with a magnet offering budget life insurance and went to find Gilligan.
He was hiding under the bed, afraid to face her. She wheedled him out with a doggie treat and then led him to his mess, where she stuck his nose in it like they said to do in those dog training videos and then tapped him on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. Gilligan cowered and peed on the floor again.
“God,” said Tenna. “I think you need therapy. Or a urologist.”
There was a knock at the door and she opened it to a little boy, no older than eight, she guessed, though she had to admit she’d gotten bad with ages as she herself got older. He seemed short for his age, but had a certain jauntiness, a devil-may-care smile that alleviated the parochial seriousness of his argyle knee socks and button-down oxford shirt.
“Hi,” he said, “I’m Jimmy.”
“Hi Jimmy,” said Tenna. “How goes it?”
“It goes,” said Jimmy, in the profound way that certain kids had. “I was wondering, didja get my flyer?”
“Sure did,” said Tenna. “As a matter of fact, I may have something for you. You walk dogs?”
“Yeah,” said Jimmy. “I love dogs.” He bent down to pet Gilligan, who had maneuvered into the space between Tenna’s legs and was peering at the little boy through the shock of hair that covered his Schnauzer eyes.
“Why don’t you take him for a walk?” said Tenna. “Hang on, I’ll get his leash.”
Jimmy knelt down beside Gilligan and began to whisper in his ear, which Gilligan perked up as if in response to the telling of national secrets. Tenna went off in search of the leash, in the process finding Lhasa and another leash, and returned to her foyer, where Jimmy and Gilligan were conspicuously absent. She walked outside, holding the two leashes in one hand and making a megaphone with the other. “Jimmy!” She yelled. “Come back, I’ve got another dog for you!”
There was no answer, and no sight of him, but Tenna wasn’t surprised. From what she’d seen already, little boys were clearly not the best at organized odd jobs. Still, she was happy that someone in the neighborhood aside from Mrs. Ribbles had finally acknowledged her. And if Gilligan had a leashless romp through their quiet neighborhood with a child, so much the better for him. Maybe it would help with his bladder-control issues.
But when dusk had fallen and there was no return of the boy or the dog, Tenna’s positive attitude began to shift. The nerve, she thought. What in the world was he thinking? Gilligan could be in trouble and, besides that, this was certainly no way to run a business! She began to reconsider the five dollars that she’d set aside for Jimmy’s cheerful, neighborhood chore-doing. Surely, she should not reward the child for dognapping and leash-law violation. Perhaps a call to his mother would be more in order.
But just as she had picked up the flyer and moved toward the phone, there he was, standing in her doorway. Jimmy was muddy from the knees down, missing one argyle sock, the left sleeve of his shirt in tatters. And with him was Gilligan, barking hysterically, his long bangs shorn straight and high across his forehead, revealing two black button eyes and a look of perpetual surprise.
“My God,” said Tenna. “What happened to you?”
Jimmy started talking, rapid and in an explanatory tone. That’s when Tenna noticed that, along with the new haircut, Gilligan was sporting a missing patch of fur from his left hind leg. No cut or other damage, just a naked place the size of a small child’s hand, the approximate shape of India on a map.
“What is this?” interrupted Tenna, pointing to the spot of bare skin on her dog.
“He got caught on a bramble bush,” said Jimmy. “He ran right into it, I couldn’t stop him.”
“Likely story,” said Tenna, righteous in her disbelief at the same time that a brief wave of guilt passed over her. She had recently become aware of this habit of turning into her mother in an instant, without knowing how it happened, without ever being a parent herself. But any remorse quickly washed away with the knowledge that she had never seen a bramble bush anywhere near town.
“And what about this?” She pointed out Gilligan’s new hairdo.
“I cut it for him,” said Jimmy. “He couldn’t see.”
“This was not a good idea,” said Tenna. “I don’t think you should come around here anymore.”
“He likes it better this way,” protested Jimmy. “Just ask him.”
Tenna ushered Gilligan inside, where he stood in the doorway. He was uncharacteristically alert and chipper as a squirrel, his tail on the verge of wag.
“Stupid dog,” muttered Tenna. “Go home, Jimmy!”
The child turned and took off running down her driveway, and Tenna was suddenly aware of how young he was. His pale legs emerging from the khaki shorts were less than a foot long. She was ashamed of herself, for an instant, but one look down at Gilligan’s bare hind leg reminded her that that boy all those boys were up to no good at all.
That night, Tenna could not sleep. She tossed and turned, tried a variety of positions her side, her stomach, backwards on the bed with her feet on the pillow. Nothing helped. Finally, she got up for a drink of water. In the weird glow of night becoming day, the kitchen looked green. But Tenna could see, despite the strange ambience, so she made her way to the faucet and poured herself a glass without switching on the florescent overhead light. As she sipped, she looked out of the window into her still dark backyard. Though the tires, far off, were camouflaged by shadow, she felt their presence, eerie in the seeming innocence of child’s play.
That’s when she thought she saw movement and looked harder, trying to identify the source. And then a spark she saw the orange glow of fire, a tiny round pinprick of light surrounded by overwhelming black. Someone was out there. Terrified, Tenna quickly returned to her room, shut her door and locked it. Her dogs were sleeping peacefully in their usual spots: Gilligan on the pillow next to hers, Lhasa at the foot of the bed. Tenna covered herself from head to toe with blankets and fell into a half-sleep.
When she woke up, welcomed by the sane light of morning, Tenna took the dogs out for their walk straight into the playground, instead of the usual way. They looked up at her and panted, exuberant over the unexpected. As they got closer to the pile of tires, Tenna was almost afraid to look. She expected animal carcasses, satanic paraphernalia, burned crosses. At the very least, she expected graffiti and a reeking beer can or two. But she found nothing, only dirt and gravel, sticks and stones. There was nothing malevolent there. Upon a second, closer inspection, she discovered a lonely cigarette butt, smoked down to the filter, on the inside rim of the uppermost tire. She touched its tip and ash dissipated into the air, disintegrating into nothingness.
Though everything seemed otherwise normal Gilligan’s hair was slowly returning, there had been no sight of Jimmy or Mrs. Ribbels’ cat, work and life were hunky-dory, or at least status quo Tenna began to have a certain recurring nightmare. After each installment of the dream, she would wake up worried, as though something infinitely horrible had happened in the world that she was just not aware of yet. She would turn on her TV and radio for the news but there was never anything abnormal: weather balmy, traffic congested, the usual ratio of violence to suburban bliss.
There was a young boy in the dream. Ostensibly, he was Tenna’s younger brother, Gary, the bane of her adolescence, the pride of their parents. He was loose in the woods, frolicking beyond the confines of their backyard and her control, behaving badly, as per usual. Tenna was the much-maligned but dedicated babysitter, and she tailed him further and further into the darkening forest a heavily wooded glen like nothing she had grown up in the vicinity of, a mythic forest primeval until he simply disappeared from sight. And that’s when she heard it: the shriek, the cry of war. That’s when she saw the swooping blades and the feathers like shining knives, reflecting nothing so much as her own terror.
Then there was silence, and Tenna looked down. There, among the ivy, the damp moss, and the too fertile forest rot, was her brother’s scalp. The tufts of yellow hair and the peachy-pink flesh, ringed darker around the edges. The darkness of each pore, where the individual hairs were rooted.
She woke from this dream in a sweat, every time. It ruined her sleep for the entire night, and though it never changed, continued to shock her completely each time it occurred.
In order to combat the dream, Tenna went to a doctor who prescribed sleeping pills and therapy. She went to a therapist who spent all of their hour picking his fingernails and asking, alternately, about her mother and her womb. He said she had deep-rooted issues. Tenna did not agree that this was a productive thing to hear, so she did not return. Luckily, the sleeping pills worked, at least to an extent. She never felt fully rested, but at least she wasn’t tired. At least she could close her eyes at night and simply feel blankness, not fear. During the day, she was a visitor from limbo-land, somewhere between sleep and awake, somewhere in indeterminable consciousness.
She floated around like this for a week until the pills ran out and she had to call the doctor for a refill. “Those were just to bridge the gap,” he said. “You should be seeing a therapist regularly. Do you need another referral?”
Tenna looked outside, and let the phone fall back into its base. The boys were back, climbing on the tires like monkeys, hooting and hollering, having a grand old time. She thought she felt a migraine coming on, so she laid down with a cold compress on her forehead and tried to relax.
But there was a knock at the door, and even before Tenna opened it she could tell it was a child’s knock, a small-fisted weak little peck at a place low on the door. She peered through the peephole and there was Jimmy, clad in full Indian regalia. He had moccasins on his feet and a tomahawk attached his belt, a complicated leather contraption with tassels. He had red and yellow war paint slashed across his face, and on his head, a headdress that must have cost his momma plenty wampum at the ole trading post. It, too, was made of leather, it had a soft sheen; and the feathers were whole and huge, each individually sewn into the base of the headdress. Each feather was a different, brilliant color, and they caught the light, creating a trippy kaleidescope effect around the boy’s head. Tenna opened the door.
“Hi,” said Jimmy. “Can I walk Gilligan today?”
Tenna was momentarily appalled. The child must have a diminished mental capacity. How else could he not remember that she sent him running home not two weeks ago, after he butchered her dog’s fur? Was he playing her for a fool?
“Jimmy,” she said, using that firm adult voice with which there can be no ambiguity, “you are no longer allowed to walk Gilligan. Do I make myself clear?”
Jimmy looked up at her, small eyebrows furrowing into one large caterpillar. “I’ll be good,” he said. “Pretty please?” Tenna took this as an admission that he had not been good in the past.
“No!” she said. “What don’t you understand about the word ‘No’?”
Jimmy backed away from the door a few feet but recovered quickly. “But why?” he asked. “Why can’t I?”
“I think you know the answer to that question perfectly well,” said Tenna. She couldn’t believe she was fighting with a little kid, but he was pushing the wrong buttons.
“That’s not fair!” said Jimmy. “You’re mean!” He stomped his foot and the little moccasin sole went “fwap!” against the pavement.
“You know what?” said Tenna. “I think that’s just about enough. I think it’s time for you to go home.”
“No!” bellowed Jimmy.
“I think it’s time I had a talk with your mother, then,” said Tenna. That shut him up for a second.
“You can’t!” he said.
“Oh, yes, I can,” said Tenna, with a smile that even she could tell was condescending enough to throw eggs at. What was she trying to do, one-up a costumed eight-year-old? Still, the kid needed boundaries. And Gilligan might really be at risk. So Tenna stood in the doorway, upholding the image of the mature adult, self-righteous because she should be, a teacher of the hard real-world lessons. Someone who believed in tough love. Someone who had a clue what she was doing.
Jimmy pulled out an authentic-looking slingshot and loaded it with one of Tenna’s decorative garden pebbles.
The shot hit her smack in the middle of the forehead, and it hurt. Then came another one, on the shoulder, and one that barely missed her nose.
“Stop that!” she yelled, attempting to grab Jimmy’s weapon without getting hit again.
“You can’t tell her! You can’t tell her!” he sang, reloading and firing. He had surprisingly good aim.
Tenna lunged for him, caught another pebble in the face, and grabbed hold of that gorgeous headdress.
“Hey, let go!” he said.
“No way, Tonto,” she said. “Gimme that.” She yanked the slingshot out of his clenched fist and put it under her heel, crunching it to oblivion. Next was the headdress, which, without stopping to think, she had yanked off of his head and thrown to the ground. She was on it in an instant, stomping and dancing like a crazy woman. The beautiful feathers were broken, the leather dusty and gray, before she stopped to catch her breath. Jimmy was quiet, tears rolling down his face, but when she looked at him, coming face to face with the terrible thing she had done, he did not want comforting. “Bitch,” he said with absolute certainty, and then tore out of her driveway, screaming like a banshee.
Tenna stood there for a minute gasping. When she could breathe again, she picked the headdress up off the ground, gathered the remains of feather and slingshot, and carried it all inside. She was tempted, again, to call Jimmy’s mother this time, to apologize for her own unacceptable behavior, not to reprimand that of her son. Instead, she fed the dogs and then brushed them, paying special attention to Gilligan’s growing-in fur, which threw Lhasa into a tizzy of jealousy. She loaded the dishwasher, changed the filter on the dryer, scrubbed the toilet. By the time the sun had set, the house was spic and span but her conscience remained as black as the cloth she had used on the kitchen floor.
It was very dark outside when she left her house by way of the back door. Quietly, she trudged across her backyard, through the dew-damp grass to the playground. She crossed into the boys’ realm the land where one furtive cigarette is smoked down to the nub when shared among many in the dead of night, where seeing is more important than style for a dog, where cats disappear, but bad behaviors are all forgiven within two weeks because, well, boys will be boys. It was both a relief and a disappointment that the playground was empty.
When she reached the leaning tower of tires, she rested one hand on the rubber, an attempt to feel the warmth of those who had been there just before her. But the tires were cool, already taking on the temperature of the night air. Tenna lifted her hand to her head and felt the soft spikiness of broken feathers, trailing down her back like out-of-control ivy, running rampant as the boys themselves. She let out a long, low cry, brought her palm to her face and then back again, and began to stomp around the circle of tires with all the energy she had ever had in the world.