A yellow leaf hits my knuckles. I grip the tree. The old man behind me breathes on my scalp. I hear cars driving over the hill, past this picnic area, toward small-town Crabapple. I dig into his thrusts. He calls me “son,” “his boy,” even though I’ve just turned nineteen. He says I feel good, says he’s going to fuck me, and there’s a line of ants crawling up the tree. They’re spiraling the tree, and my forearm almost disturbs them as it rubs against the bark. If I move my hand I will send them falling. My knees bore into the soil. This is how I fall.
The man finishes. I grind my teeth.
“Did I hurt you?” he says.
I wipe the bits of bark stuck to my skin. I hear the man slap off his condom.
I pull up my pants. The ants continue to crawl. I need toilet paper. There is no bathroom here. There is the man I called “daddy” because he liked it. His wet fingers feel my back, now. I stumble a little. I’m lightheaded. His hands tighten around me, caress me. I reach and touch his naked hips.
“You wanted to do this, right?” he says. “After you didn’t show up yesterday, I thought you’d changed your mind.”
This man had messaged me for a month. He never sent a picture, so I imagined his messages coming from the other pictures I’ve seen online, coming from the closed, inviting lips of a ripped lumberjack, maybe.
“I haven’t had sex in almost nine years,” the old man says, blinking at the afternoon glare filtering through the thinning trees. “Forest makes me nervous.” He doesn’t seem hurried, though.
He lets go of me. The only man like me in Crabapple, I think. I had hoped for someone younger. The lumberjack. I turn and look at the man’s stooped shoulders, bulbous nose and veiny neck skin. I feel guilty for imagining other men during sex, when the man was probably happy to look at my smooth back.
“You don’t have your pants on,” I say and step on the condom.
I watch him dress: first his thin white briefs, then his khakis. He tucks in his blue plaid short-sleeve shirt.
“When you message me,” I say, “You sign your name with an ‘A.’ What does it stand for?”
“Abe,” he says, patting his back pockets. I touch my stomach, try to press out the feeling that he’s still moving in me.
“Why don’t you just sign your name?”
When Abe licks his wrinkled lips, the moisture turns the dried, dead skin a see-through white.
“Nobody can be knowing we’re doing what we’re doing,” he says.
I say, “I don’t tell.” I hope my words come together to make Abe forget how he strained to fit himself in my ass, and how my panting sounded too much like pain. I hope the words sound like a man used to being fucked. Not that it matters: he just said I was his first in nine years. We’re two chupacabras roaming the wilderness. Two beasts wanting not to be alone. Maybe that’s love, but not exactly.
“I like you,” he says. He looks younger when he says this. His eyes are blue like the water in our above-ground pool. A leaf strikes his splotched cheek. The ants on the tree are still crawling, which is natural, I think, as I follow him up the rocky slope toward the picnic area. The ants looked as if they had always climbed the tree, had never stopped climbing, and the tree—well, it was natural for it to let them. I touch my ass through my pants. Is this pulse natural, and the sticking of my underwear to the blood I imagine drying there?
When we reach the top, a gray-haired woman is riding my bicycle on the grass. Her path makes a figure-eight around two concrete picnic tables. I stop walking. Abe sits at one of the tables.
“Hello boys,” the woman says, stopping a few feet from me. I smile and look at Abe, who’s also smiling. The woman isn’t smiling. She knows, I think.
“I’m going to guess this is your bike,” she says to me. Her hair lies clumped on her head. The pins holding it all together reflect the sunlight, making it appear like there’s a crown hiding in that mess.
“Yep, that’s his bike, there,” Abe says, pointing to it. He licks his teeth. I hold out a hand like I want to grab the handlebars, but she’s still sitting on the seat. Her wrinkly skin looks blue, and she’s playing with her big white-beaded necklace, touching each bead.
“It’s a very nice bike,” the woman says, stepping off it. “And it’s nice seeing boys like you still riding instead of driving. Good exercise.”
My hand still hangs in the air. “Thanks,” I say.
“You and your grandpa—or uncle—or” her lips close as her eyes open a little bigger.
Abe says, “Grandpa—that there’s my grandson Jason.”
I bite my bottom lip. Now she thinks my grandfather fucked me, and she isn’t giving me my bike because the police are coming. My muscles tighten.
But the woman smiles, revealing fake white teeth. “It is nice to meet you, Jason. My name is Margo. You and your grandpa enjoy a little nature walk?” She sighs loudly, but in a happy way, and she looks at the sky and opens her arms to it. “Such a wonderful afternoon. And the leaves, finally falling, and autumn is my favorite season. I decided I’d drive down here today to look for a pair of shoes I lost. I won’t bother you with details, but I lost some red high-heeled shoes the other day. Well, I actually threw them. I wasn’t thinking, and, oops, I just tossed those shoes down the hill.”
Margo hands me my bike, which I hold close between me and her. She points toward the street where Abe’s truck is parked.
“I found one shoe over there by the curb,” she says. “I imagine a squirrel or opossum didn’t take too much to it. It has little teeth marks on it.”
“I guess an animal don’t like fancy shoes just as much as a man don’t,” Abe says.
Margo claps her hands. I notice she has long nails, and they click together. I press and press the brakes on my handlebars. I look at Abe. Both he and Margo are laughing.
I have the urge to say, My grandfather fucked me today. This way, the game will be over, and the woman will say, “I knew it!” The police haven’t come, and the woman is acting a little crazy, and my cries weren’t so loud, maybe. Besides, Abe isn’t my grandfather, and now I clench my teeth because I want the old woman to know that Abe fucked me, and fuck you bitch for riding my bike, and fuck you Abe for making a joke and laughing, and you aren’t even looking at me. And still the woman’s hairpins sparkle.
Abe and Margo shake hands. He does have a strong arm, and tanned, only a little spotted from the sun. The hair on his hands is still black. My hair and skin are white except for one black hair growing on my right arm. I try to keep it trimmed.
“Your grandpa is a very funny man,” Margo says. “And two nice boys such as yourselves are lucky to get out of those woods without seeing anything that would make Jesus die again if he could. If you knew what kinds of sounds I hear coming from behind that wall of trees. But just you look at this shoe.” She turns her back and walks toward the curb. Abe looks at me. His mouth makes a kissing shape and his hands rub against his pants. I stare back, wondering what sounds the woman has heard, wondering whether Abe and I weren’t the only ones coupling in the woods, or whether Abe is a liar and has been here before. No, he and I are the same. Abe shifts his attention to Margo, who is holding the shoe in her hand and pointing to the marks on it.
“Why look at that,” Abe says, squinting.
“Maybe you bit your own shoe,” I say. Margo lets out a wheeze of a laugh and drops the shoe.
“Apple doesn’t fall far from the old tree,” she says. “You’re just as funny as your grandpa. I’m sure your grandma has a tough job with both you two.”
“Well, there’s no grandma anymore,” Abe says, crossing his arms. “Passed away years ago, God bless her.”
“Well, I am sorry,” Margo says. “My husband is gone, too, and it gets lonely, doesn’t it? Yes, I do get lonely. Richard—that was my husband’s name—bought me these very shoes so long ago I can’t even remember when, and now one of them is chewed and the other—why I don’t know where it is. Over in the trees, probably. I guess I wanted to forget him. That’s why I threw the shoes out. You’d think a woman my age would know better.”
Abe wipes his nose.
I glance behind me. “I didn’t see a shoe when we were walking,” I say.
“Well, I think it must be down there right on the top of everything. And, son, I do mean everything that is a disgrace to nature and decent behavior. I would go and look for that shoe myself, but my knees are already hurting from riding your bike. That’s what I get for thinking it was abandoned. But, look at you. Maybe your grandpa wouldn’t mind if you went down and looked for me. You don’t have to look long, and the woods are silent now, so I don’t think there’s need to worry about coming across—“
Abe waves a hand. “You can go look, boy. We’re in no hurry to leave just yet.”
I let my bike drop, and Margo says, “Oops, now, be careful. I bet your grandpa spent some money on that bike, and honey, you look for just that shoe. Don’t set your eyes on anything else that may be lying on the ground.”
I walk down the hill and enter the trees. The air feels cooler now and makes the trees and ground look bluer. The shoe isn’t anywhere. I kick the leaves. The woman couldn’t have heard us, I decide. I pass the tree with the ants and stop. Dirt specks the unraveled condom. I hear the woman’s laugh.
I pick up the condom. The dirt sticks to it. I stuff it in my pocket. Then I look for the woman’s shoe. After fifteen minutes, though, the sun begins to set, and the shadows seem to bubble from the ground. Maybe the other shoe doesn’t exist. This could have been the woman’s game. She traps men like Abe, and wants to send me away so she can kiss him with her licorice-thin lips. Walking up the slope, now, away from the trees, I feel the condom. Even if she knows, Abe made the face at me when she was walking away. He wanted to kiss me. When I tell the woman her other shoe is gone, she will give up and leave, and Abe will take me to his truck and he will kiss me.
The concrete picnic tables look grey and cold when I top the hill, and the woman is sitting next to Abe now. She looks at me and says, “Oh, and your hands are empty, unless you’re hiding it behind you.”
“I couldn’t find it.”
Margo continues her conversation with Abe. I sit at the second table, where I find a daddy longlegs. I pretend to be fascinated with its bouncing walk along the concrete bench. I listen to the woman talk about the types of trees. “I’ve named them,” she says. “I name lots of things.”
The spider climbs my leg, then up my arm. The woman sits quiet for several minutes. Then she says, “Tell me, Abe, because I ask myself every day. Sometimes I drive here and sit at this table and listen to the noises coming from the forest. And tell me, Abe, because you’re a man, but why do men turn to men, and surely you know what I mean?”
Abe says nothing.
“I sit here and listen to them,” she continues, “and every day my breasts sink lower. My hair grows more brittle, but I can give, Abe. I sit here and almost yell out to those hiding down there that I can still give and my giving is natural, but nobody wants to take from me anymore.”
The daddy longlegs drops to the ground.
Abe clears his throat and motions with his hand. “Well, I don’t know, but I think you have very fine breasts.”
Liar! But he lies well—and boldly—and I like it because I know he must be thinking about how he pushed his penis inside my ass, how he said, “You’re smooth, so very smooth.” He called my nipples “buttons, ones I want to undo.”
I glance again at Margo, whose face is red in the dim light, and she’s smart because she says, “Now you’re lying.”
But Abe says, “No. And your hair is shiny, too.”
Another lie! Her crown of pins grows dull.
“I’m getting it cut soon,” she says.
“And don’t be thinking about those noises,” he says, “because I bet you still have a heck of a lot to give.”
I hold my breath. But he called me “his boy,” and it sounded true, like it was carved on some big rock.
I pick a leaf that is stuck in a cobweb underneath the table. Somewhere, I think, there must be a leaf in a bubble, and that leaf is the leaf. And it’s not made of gold, but it’s made of the purest leaf. The same goes for the ants on the tree. Somewhere there is the ant that all ants are trying to be. I drop the leaf and touch the condom that has warmed in my pocket. Maybe in the moment when he called me “his boy,” we became, for a second, the purest of lovers. And we’re keeping that secret.
I cough. Margo looks at me and waves her sharp fingers. “And you, Jason. Yes, you will be a great man.”
“Sorry again about your shoe,” I say.
“There’s no need to find it now,” she says. “You’ll find plenty of women’s shoes in your time, and it’s getting late, isn’t it? Too late to be here.”
Margo stretches and slowly stands. Her nipples make two small spikes in her blouse.
“I’m hungry now for the first time in a week,” she says. “There’s a buffet down the street, and we seniors get a discount after six o’clock.”
I stand. “Grandpa is having dinner at our house tonight.”
Abe bites at the dead skin on his lips.
“Is that right?” Margo says.
Abe sighs heavily, stands and hikes his pants. He doesn’t look at me when he says, “The family won’t care one iota if I miss dinner.”
“And will Jason’s parents mind if he comes too?”
Abe finally looks at me. Even in the dark, I see his eyes open wide, then shut.
“They won’t mind,” I say. I enjoy this little game.
“We’ll call them and let them know,” he says and winks.
“I just love new friends,” Margo says and walks to her car.
I walk my bike to Abe’s truck and lift it into the back. Abe unlocks the doors. Margo pulls next to us and rolls down her window. “You know the buffet I’m talking about, Abe? Mr. Treat’s?”
“We’ll be right behind you,” he says.
I slide into the passenger seat as Abe slowly hoists himself into the driver’s seat. I watch Margo’s car turn right out of the rest stop.
“We don’t have to go,” I say. “We could just go back to your place. I bet your sisters are asleep.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” he says.
“The noises Margo talked about. Have you been here before?”
Abe shifts gears and exits the rest stop. Cars pass us going the opposite way. Their headlights cast a glow on the telephone poles and trees next to us, and the light reflects off the metal fences and the eyes of deer standing just behind the chain links. I touch Abe’s thigh. My hand stays there, but Abe doesn’t touch it.
We pass under the stoplight entering downtown Crabapple. The trees lining Main conceal the fact that most of the buildings downtown sit vacant. Ahead, a pink neon sign advertises Mr. Treat’s. Abe steers clear from a deep pothole as we pull into the parking lot. Margo is standing at the entrance and waves.
“What if we see people we know?” I say.
“Crabapple might be tiny, and everyone might say they know everyone. But really, nobody remembers shit.”
Abe jerks the key from the ignition. I can tell he’s nervous.
When Abe and I step from the truck, the neon sign bathes us all in a pink glow.
Margo walks up. “I’m craving some okra.”
“If I’m not mistaken,” Abe says, “some people call okra ‘Lady’s Fingers.”’
Margo waves her right fingers before opening the glass buffet door. The hostess, a middle-aged voluptuous woman who looks like she could also teach Sunday School, recognizes Margo, calls her “Ms. Margaret,” and says, “Three?” Then she sits us. Abe and Margo sit on one side. I sit across from Abe. The hostess brings us three plates and iced tea.
“I didn’t know you had family,” the woman says.
“Oh, well,” Margo says. When the hostess leaves she apologizes. “I just hate telling people they’re wrong. And I guess everyone on earth is part of one big family.”
“No need to apologize,” Abe says.
Margo sighs. “Well, Jason, you and your grandpa go ahead and get yourself something to eat. I’ll stay here and look after my purse.”
“Ladies first,” Abe says.
“Such a model of manners,” she says, standing. “I saw some okra.” Then she presses her plate to her breasts and walks toward the five steaming buffet tables in the middle of the dining room. I suddenly feel pressure on my crotch. I look down and Abe’s foot is tickling it. I look at him and he’s smiling and the yellow light above us creates a labyrinth of shadows down his face.
“She could see us,” I say.
“Are you still my little boy?” he says.
I shove his foot off my chair. I hear the thud of his heel on the carpet. Still, my pants tighten; a terrible twitch presses against my zipper.
“I’m going to the restroom and wash up,” I say.
Nobody is in the two-stall bathroom. I stand in front of the cracked mirror and turn, looking for dirt stains, cum stains, any evidence. Nothing. The door behind me opens, and Abe walks through. He looks at the stalls.
“It’s empty,” I say. I notice his fly is open. I turn on the water and pump soap in my hands.
“It locks,” he says, and I watch his reflection. He turns the bolt, locking us in the restroom. I see him walk toward me. He touches my ass. He leans into me until the sink digs into my crotch. He kisses my neck. I turn around. His lips taste salty.
“You tried the okra,” I say.
Abe’s hands unbutton my pants. My wet hands hold his arms. His eyes remain fixed as if he’s staring at the air freshener in the corner. Abe’s dry thrusts quicken. He breathes as if he’s clearing his throat.
“Why aren’t you hard?” he says suddenly and steps away.
“Anybody could knock on the door.”
Abe enters a stall and shuts the door.
“You didn’t hold my hand in the truck,” I say. “And now you’re acting like this.”
“At my age, a man feels dead if there isn’t a little danger.”
“Is that the only reason you let me tag along tonight? How many times have you been down to that spot?”
“In the forest it’s different,” Abe says. “I don’t hold any man’s hand, but I’ll hold yours.”
I unlock the door and step out.
“Are the restrooms clean?” Margo says when I get back to the table.
“They don’t have paper towels,” I say and wipe my hands on my cloth napkin.
At the buffet table, I pile some macaroni on my plate and glance at Margo, who isn’t eating, has her hands on her lap. Her attention seems focused toward the restroom, waiting, perhaps, for Abe to reemerge so she can reemerge from whatever quiet spell she has cast for herself. I stab a log of meatloaf. Something about her wait seems natural. Her interest, natural. The macaroni on my plate slides as I fork a slab of loaf on it. Where are the men Abe has fucked? Will I ever bump into them? Will we recognize ourselves as monsters wanted by men who are scared of monsters, but can’t help wanting the fear of one? The pain in my abdomen doesn’t feel monstrous, the reason for meeting him today, the touching, at night under the bed sheets, of that silent hardness, not monstrous. Beasts don’t dream.
I return to the dinner table and sit. After Abe comes out and loads his plate, we eat.
“I was at a coffee shop recently,” Margo says, “and a young man with one of those spiky hairstyles sat beside me. He offered to give me a Tarot reading for free. He said he just loved helping people.”
“The devil comes to you wearing a robe of white,” Abe says. Margo nods and swallows a bite of chicken parmesan.
“I was a little scared at first because I don’t believe in those dark forces, but it was also exciting. When I told him my birthday, he said I was an Aquarius.”
“I’m a Libra myself, though don’t tell anyone I know that,” Abe says.
“I don’t know about that one,” Margo says. Abe puts down his fork, reaches and grabs Margo’s hands. My focus shakes a little. I watch as Abe cups her hands and lifts them.
“According to astrologers, a Libra is represented by the scales.” Then he guides Margo’s right hand until it’s slightly higher than her left. “We love balance.”
Margo’s face blushes. I drop my fork and stand. “I’m heading home,” I say, and leave.
I lift my bike from Abe’s truck bed and set it on the ground. It’s a red bike—one that I’ve had for six years—but the paint looks pink. My friends go through a bike every year, it seems, as they try jumping the narrow parts of Crabapple creek, risk crashing them into each other. I run my fingers over the still-smooth paint. I’m not them, and I’m not Abe, either.
I ride down Main toward my parents’ house. Our residential neighborhood is still except for deer huddled on the front lawns. The moon reflects in their eyes, and I imagine them bowing as they silently wait for me to pass.