A Gathering of the Shades

Peter Barrett

He’d been gone a week when the kid with warts in his finger webs, who talked to himself and threw rocks at reservoir geese, and whose strangely long neck had a down of light hair growing down toward his back, past where his haircut was cut, giving his whole head and neck the look of one bent tube, like a goose some thought, like a swan some secretly thought, said he saw Ricky’s and Ricky’s brother’s mother. She’d been ordering a half pound of roast beef at the supermarket while he was breaking down boxes in the store room. Her face looked gray and her eyes, “They just sat in her face like rocks.”

“What’s it with you and rocks?” we demanded.

“You have a job,” someone disbelieved.

“As the oldest in our class,” reminding us as he rubbed against the grain of his grown-in buzz, he’d be doing everything first.

“Why’s your neck so long?” we accused.

“Get out of here with your weird neck and your job.”

The kid whose clothes smelled like a litter box said he’d had a dream the night Ricky’s brother went missing that Ricky’s brother’s pubes were his own eyebrows and eyelashes, and he kept tearing them out of his face, but they grew faster than he could tear, and beside him piles of hair grew, in heaps larger around him surrounding, so he was drowning and felt in the dream like falling even as he knew he was just standing there until he woke and was there lying.

“Get out of here with your weird dream.”

Ricky didn’t say much. We’d press him and he’d speak to his high tops.

“You know what I know,” he’d say, which was a lie because he lived in his silent house with his gray mom and her rock eyes. He knew exactly what went on in there behind those walls. Even if they never met each other’s looks or made no sound other than to clear a throat while clearing the dinner dishes—that was something he knew.

When Ricky’s brother’s bike was found tipped over in the high grass near where the highway ramp was being built, by the kid that lets his fingernails grow too long, we started to get an idea. When that kid who was all the time trying to sell his dad’s crusty porno magazines to us, the ones where the photos have turned yellow and the pages feel like moth wings, and all the girls have hairy bushes and ugly hair, when he said he’d seen Ricky’s brother, he swore to god, heading down to see a girl in the duplexes, we knew.

Ricky’s brother had gone too far, in just the way he’d warned us not too. He’d gotten lost, or maybe trapped, somewhere in the deep insides of that girl—whoever she might be.

Ricky’s brother always appeared in an instant, holding his fist as a present.

“Put out your hand,” he’d tell whoever was standing closest him, furthest their bike. Into your open palm he’d drop one of his dark winding curls pulled out just past his elastic. You’d still feel that tickle after you rubbed the thigh of your jeans. That tickle when you sat down after washing your hands to dig through macaroni and cheese or whatever your mom had plopped together after work.

“Got pubes yet,” he’d demand. “Tear them then. Show me.”

We hoisted his bike up in a crabapple tree with the clothesline Ricky found in his brother’s old room, buried in his boxers and socks, to keep anyone from riding it, and as a reminder of where he’d gone.

We wanted to build something you could see from your house, or maybe the last thing the reddish light would hit at the end of the day. We’d argue over whether riding it would be wrong, and threw crabapples, pinging the spokes and turning the wheels. We tore handfuls of lawn, whistling the blades through our cupped hands, and punched each other’s arms purple. We Indian-burned the summer down our skin.

A dog no one liked went missing, causing somebody to say that she got him too, but this was dismissed as a weak notion in the same way monsters under the bed or in the closet would have been a few years before. Not everything could be traced back to the girl, but everyone tried.

Talk started of Ricky’s father. Where had he gone? How long had it been since we’d seen him mowing the grass? Or washing his truck? It must’ve been the beginning of the beginning. He’d been out grilling in the backyard, his belly stretching a golf shirt over his belt, and then his truck was gone and Ricky was staring at his sneakers with the same old story that he knew only what we knew, which was newer then.

We’d wanted to shake Ricky back then, as we shook him then.

“We don’t know anything,” we’d yell to ourselves when we were alone.

“You know everything,” someone would plead to him. We’d throw rocks at geese, at Ricky. Maybe this crabapple to the head is what you need to remember.

We bathed constantly, our bodies let out dark smells. We locked our bedroom doors. We sat on toilets until our legs grew numb. The sun would go up and would no sooner go down again, and we would blink and it was August. We would sleep and fear in our dreams that America, baseball, and bungee cords would all be myth when we woke.

“We know you know something.”

“Ricky, please, we know you know there is something to know.”

Someone suggested Ricky’s dad disappearing had something to do with Ricky’s brother disappearing. The girl was involved in both we’d nod. Even some of us who didn’t really think that, but had nothing else to think, picking at black scabs on our legs, would agree loudly.

“She connects the two.” Red tears would roll down our shin and catch in our bunched socks and brown and only half wash out weeks later.

“She’s the only answer.”

But someone would disagree, “There was Ricky also.”

Somebody else would pipe, “There was his mom.”

“Maybe it was something they both had a hand in,” we wondered.

“They’re all up to their elbows in it as far as I’m concerned,” someone repeated their own father’s phrase, realizing as soon as they said it and grew quiet.

“They’re not innocent in all this.”

We stopped ringing Ricky’s doorbell. Then someone saw a for sale sign, another day someone saw vans. School started. Our mother’s gray hairs made dry doilies in the bath drain. And then just like Ricky’s brother, one by one, our fathers disappeared.

Sphinx of the neighborhood, Ricky’s brother used to ask us impossible questions.

“Ever read the barcode on a jimmy hat?” “Yeah,” meant we were stupid liars and had never even seen a condom because there was no barcode. “No,” meant we had “tiny baby dicks” because we “never had to roll them back that far.”

Even us, he’d tell us, with our little baby dicks had better be careful if we ever did get inside a girl. “Trust me, I know what goes on in there. What I do is tie clothesline around a doorknob and to my ankle when I go in.”

Some preferred bread crumbs, against the advice of Hansel and Gretel, he assured us. He would usually pack enough food for a few days just in case, and a flashlight, or matches.

“Because the first part is dark, but better bring sunglasses too. Once you get all the way in, it’s brighter than the brightest day.”

He’d tell us how good it was without a rubber.

“Feels, I can’t even say,” Ricky’s brother would say, “how good.”

“Going bareback is like a hot bath. Fingers get wrinkled if you’re in there long enough. Lose a dick that way. Shrivel right off.”

Then he’d steal our ball, dribble loud and fast, and heave a three over someone’s outstretched arms and stand still as a statue, blocking the sun from his face with his shot hand as the ball fell in.

“God damn, you little kids don’t even know.”

In the same way the Jew kid wouldn’t say God, we stopped saying Ricky’s brother’s name.

“He isn’t even allowed to write it,” the kid with a skunk spot explained. G-O-D, someone would sneak up and try to scrawl on the Jew’s t-shirt with a stick stuck in dog shit. And the Jew kid would fight, and when the Jew kid and whoever were heaving tired, scratched red like from falling into a hedge, their shirts torn from their armpits, neck holes widened, and eyes angry wet, someone would chant, softly, starting with a whisper at first, but building to a roar—“Hall-o-cost, Hall-o-cost, Hall-o-cost”—because it was big, and old, and far away, and meant nothing to us, which was just the kind of thing that we would fight over.

One of the few fathers left, a cop who lived down the street, one of the ones who’d told Ricky’s mom in those first few days that there was nothing they could do, that they were sure her son would be back, took fireworks he’d confiscated in the weeks before the fourth and threw a party. After those surprised cracks passed, along with the furious arguments that pitted neighbor against neighbor over the small fire in the woods that resulted, and resulted in a chest-to-chest exchange between drunken cops and working firefighters, just when the summer lost its bearings between the start of school and the beginning of fall, with nothing between to mark the days, when the early mornings no longer wet the backs of our necks and pits of our knees, and the lawn clippings, dried at the edges of the street had been washed away by regular rains—Ricky’s brother began speaking to us.

Did we have pubes yet? Ever smell pussy?

Where once we said, remember when, Ricky’s brother this or that, we now spoke his stories, asked his questions. His voice became our voice.

Accusing—“what does it smell like then, huh?”

Demanding answers to our impossible questions—“what does dirt smell like?” “What does the inside of your nose smell like?”

“Well was it true?”

“Was everything Ricky’s brother told us true?”

We remembered often, remembering even our remembering, how on that last day anyone saw Ricky’s brother, he was walking down the street without a shirt or shoes, just some dirty jeans torn at the knees. His hair was pushed flat across his head like he’d been swimming and was now dried. He looked shipwrecked and sat himself down in the traffic island by the Y intersection, under the shade of a tree while we gathered around him. His eyes were closed and he spoke while we listened silently.

“First you rub through the clothes, and get naked. Then like when you eat something sour, she gets wet like a mouth down there. She lets me and so I climb down into her, and once you’re in, all the way, you feel you’re going to boil, but this light starts like, a star from far off, but gets bigger and closer all at once, and brings air like from an open fridge which pours over you. Everything is brighter than headlights driving against you on your bike, when you’re racing home for dinner.”

Ricky’s brother opened his eyes but looked like he was looking right through us.

“You can get lost sometimes for hours in her. You wouldn’t believe,” he’d told us, daring us not to believe. “She’s just like this world out here, except in her everything goes on. When you’re there, you’re everywhere. Your skin isn’t only your own skin. You can feel fish nipping their mouths at bugs in ponds in other countries. There’s smooth cities of glass. You could be on top of a building and see straight down to the ground, through the ground, and into every house for miles, people showering, dressing, eating dinner.”

Ricky’s eyes starting pouring water.

“Rocks talk to you, in your own mind, like you’re reading. Run your fingers along their moss and they’ll tell you the craziest stories, because they’ve seen everything for a million years. And you can feel your own pulse in the roots of old trees—pumping your blood behind their bark, just down in there waiting for you to come find you, find you finding you, and climb down into yourself, climbing into yourself.”

Some looked away, while some of us continued watching Ricky’s brother, who was crying jaggedly, covering his mouth with the back of his hand like he might yawn furiously. Ricky knelt, head down, pulling at his laces like he was about to step into a game.

“But my favorite part is breathing. Your breathing has breathing. Your breath has its own breath which has its own breath, on and on, and you can see them all moving off in the distance, steaming in lines, like jets across the sky.”

Then he grew quiet, rubbing his hands on the thighs of his jeans absently.

“You don’t believe me now, but soon all you’ll ever want is to be inside.”

He got back up from under that tree, and walked out into the sun. His body glistening like he’d been rolled in salt. Up the street he went back from where he came, and we realized the game we had been playing was now over and so went to find our own shades to sit in, and to think alone.


School began and ended and summer returned. We careened through days like flying downhill on our bikes, though we had quit our bikes, catching rides in cars to all the places we then needed to be. We bought up what we could—that kid’s father’s old crusty magazines, and the sleek new ones still in cellophane from the gas station, finding a friendly clerk who offered us tapes, lotions, jellies in back rooms beside cartons of motor oil and cereal. We became concerned with fabric, wool being too rough, but silk too hard to clean.

Meeting just after breakfast, as our moms’ cars left for work, we walked across dew-gray lawns, wiping toast crumbs from our mouths’ corners, into indoors, shuffling down storm cellar stairs to the cool half-depth of basements, rumpus rooms, to pop tapes into VCRs from black stacks like small cities.

“There. There, rewind it,” someone yelled, as a woman pulled a football out of her. “That was the ball we lost last December in the snow pile.”

“There,” two tennis balls, a golf ball, a miniature bat from bat day, a regular bat, “God, a regular regulation bat too.” Whole sporting goods stores were being pulled out of women.

Aching from our days, eyes squinting in the late purple evening sun, we returned for dinner. We eyed our mothers suspiciously as they settled down in the evening with a magazine. Our sisters too, always in their rooms, doing God-knows-what behind their locked doors, all the while talking on the phone with their girl friends, in other rooms, all around town.

We asked the few fathers still left, but they laughed at our glass cities.

“Glass needs to be cleaned, glass breaks,” they’d say. “There are only ruins in there after all is said and done,” they said.

“But what was done?” we said screaming into our pillows.

Someone’s cousin was visiting and we took our turns with her, rubbing her like a genie’s lamp, peeling her layers like a Russian doll. We called over other girls from school who we knew, who had talked to us once, taking them into separate rooms, our sister’s, brother’s, mother’s, trying to convince them to let us in. Begging with our hands on pilled couch cushions, they let us climb into their mouths. Mouth after mouth, we found dead ends. Cleavage led to nothing, just a trick of skin. Armpits laughed at us. Fingers were as far as we ever got. How worthless they were we had never noticed. For all our catching and passing and throwing and tackling, for all those games, they were worthless bones and skin now, dull tips, dumber knuckles.

But finger warts said he knew the way.

“That girl, Ricky’s brother’s girl, she was in the store the other day.”

“Liar,” we argued.

“I know what I know and it was her. She broke a jar of pickles,” which he had mopped up and then followed her car home on his bike.

“What was it he was always telling us?”

“You think you’re Ricky’s brother now?” we yelled.

“We’re all trying to get in other girls, but it’s only her, she’s the only one.”

“The one,” we remembered was what Ricky said.

“You’re all on a wild goose chase,” he hissed.

“You would know,” we agreed, defeated.

He’d sat out all day and night by the duplexes and knew when she was alone, when her parents left for work. She was just an ordinary girl it seemed to him, who went to the high school across town. He was going to be an Eagle Scout so he could tie knots, but he wanted in her first. That was the deal. He would go first.

We made the Jew go first, so he stuck his hand through the partway open screen door, prying slowly. Then we were in the cold dark of the kitchen while a TV alternated blue and pink in another room mutely. Clocks tamped inside themselves between our breathing. We could hear our blood, our own ears. We could smell our noses. Up some stairs and down a hallway we walked, running our fingers along the wood panel grooves, tapping the doorknobs, softly squealing our tips on the glass of picture frames, our nails on blisters of needlework, each of us seeking the friction of the house.

Water pulsed behind a wall from a running shower. Steam poured from the glowing under edge of a door on the far end of the darkened hallway. We set our positions. By the bedroom door, around the corner by the bathroom, crouched at the top of the stairs watching the front door and driveway, and with the rope, and with the pillows.

Light spread at the bathroom door opening along with a wet exhale, and she walked between us in our tucked away places in a white towel, her hair dark with wet and drops of water on her shoulders and shins like the flecks in a broken open rock. We grabbed her with all of our hands at once, to the mouth, covering, but not the nose, as bellows of her excited air frightened the quiet, to the neck, slapping at an ear tearing a tiny stud jewel out as she whipped her head away with a quick spattering rain, to an arm and towel dropped ribs and warm shivering soft anywhere to grip.

We had her on the bed, while warts tied her wrists and ankles to the four posts. She moved like one muscle, as if she were trying to swallow herself into herself. We propped pillows under her lower half and sealed a beanbag puppy taken from a stuffed animal pile in her mouth with packing tape to keep her muzzled. Our stomachs soured with excitement. We felt we were boiling alive in our own blood. Our breathing had breathing.

We could see out her room’s windows the yards of all the duplexes, a man walking his dog, pissing on what it wanted, parked cars pulling away revealing some shadow of leak underneath, a group of children squatting around something gone down the sewer.

We thought of our brothers, arms as wings, burring their engine lips, while spinning slow spiral crashes on the driveway, our sisters minding mud pies, barefoot in the spouting secret pipe the neighbor emptied his pool from, and ourselves, alone with a whittled stick, trying to pry out the endless amount of staples in a telephone pole with their tattered paper petals of every imaginable color, the remains of tag sales, and block parties, and missing dogs.

Warts went first, and then the Jew with the bag full of food and flashlights, the second holding her open for the first. Skunk spot, nails too long and litter box followed with the rope, tying it off and lowering themselves in backwards, calling to Ricky’s brother as they entered, the sound sounding thin, escaping out through her nose in miniature, their shouts of joy covered by her kazoo grunts, their wondering yelps taken over by her muffled cries. Her eyes and heaving body wet, her skin scratched red.

“Are you coming,” they asked small and far off, and worth a fight.

I cut the clothesline tied to the doorknob that promised their way back, sealing them somewhere inside her, watching as the rope recoiled with a whipping hush into her like a vacuum cord, then the tape from her mouth, then the knots from her wrists, her lost earring, her towel.

We were alone, the two of us, together.

We untied her ankles, freeing each other, finding later each other’s hairs under our underwear’s elastics, dry woven in our shower drain. We fit the tops of our feet into the bottoms of our foot curls in fitful sleep during the nights our mothers died, and our children grew, land eroded in century floods, while soil chalked elsewhere. Towns came up from nothing, and cities chipped like teeth and we became whole of it all, somehow not realizing, and never saying the names of those that went before, though we hear them calling like groans and croaks of an upset stomach, and each night, as another day disappears into our trying to be one body, we say nothing, nothing at all, is missing.

Peter Barrett
Peter Barrett

Peter Barrett lives in Beacon, New York, with his wife, three turtles, and dog.  A book publicist by day, he earned his MFA from Columbia University and is currently working on his first novel.