- Barry Hannah
- Open City/AAWW
- Sound Art/Dissonance
- Trance Poetics
Tyler’s face was greasy and streaked with yellow mustard. The first place he wanted me to put it was over his scars. Now half his face is yellow.
“You want me to keep going?” I ask.
“Yes, please. Cake it on thick at the problem areas,” he says. I twist the corndog in the mustard we’ve squirted, packet by packet, on a flattened Doritos bag. I dab it on his chin where he has pimples.
Tyler lives in the apartments where we just moved, and we get along because I haven’t called him Scarface or Ugg-O or any of the other nasty things the kids at school call him. In a few weeks, when I start at the school where Tyler goes, I’ll call him all those things, and some new things. It’s not that I’m being nice this summer. It’s just that my friends live by my old school, down the interstate, where I used to live in Cotton Crossings. Until I make better friends, there’s Tyler, who gets called every mean name the kids at this school can think of.
“I think that’s it,” Tyler says. He’s just listed all the names they have for him. Some are because of his big purple scars, but others have nothing to do with that. He’ll list them if I ask. It’s like an honor for him and it’s amazing that he can remember so many.
“Do you know Van?” I ask. Before I left to stay with Grandmother, my best friend at my old school in Cotton Crossings was Van. He always won at Smear the Queer because when he got the ball, nobody wanted to go after him. When Tyler tells me about the eighth graders calling him Ugg-O, I figure he must know Van because he was always nicknaming people by dropping the end part of a word and adding an O to it.
“I don’t believe Van and I have met,” Tyler says. “Maybe he’s friends with one of the eighth graders. I just remembered another one. Kimmie Choate called me a fuck-stick. Nobody had heard that before.”
“Van don’t really cuss. He’s Church of Christ. You don’t have to take that this year,” I say. “Seventh graders rule.” I’m painting his cheek with mustard, thinking about how it’s got to feel slimy but cool, maybe even nice.
The good news: since he’s moving up a grade, Tyler will have one less grade of kids in school to give him grief. I’m famous for calling kids something plus the word a-lot, like Sir Lancelot from King Arthur, except with me it’s Sir Jerks-off-a-lot or Sir Sucks-ass-a-lot.
I dip the corndog in the bubble of mustard and touch it to the top of Tyler’s cheek, dragging it down to his neck. I do it slow and it feels good covering this much ground. I always like painting in art class. I take my paper and paint it all one color. I go in long, slow, streaks, just like I’m doing with Tyler. The time I ran out of blue and had to use orange to finish, the art teacher hung my art on the door to the classroom, which was the best spot. That one, she told me, was a beauty.
Tyler’s skin is soft but sticky, pulling tight and jumping back into place when I work the mustard over where his skin moves loose. It’s sweaty, tacky. It’s July and humid and we’ve just run like hell from the Dairyette to the train tracks. Tyler sits on the ground, Indian-style. I’m on a milk crate, and when I move, the plastic pinches the skin on my thighs. I’m following directions very carefully, leaned forward so I’m breathing out of my mouth into Tyler’s nose where he breathes in. I’m concentrating, trying like hell to do this thing right.
The next time I go to the Dairyette for a milkshake, I’ll have to check through the window to see if that same girl is working. A small milkshake is a dollar fifty. Small fries are a dollar fifty, and a hot dog is two dollars. If I got a bigger allowance, I wouldn’t tip more than a quarter because it’s not like that girl’s doing anything but bringing me my food. Momma works at a restaurant too, but she fills water glasses and has to remember the specials. Sometimes people ask her what’s good here. Momma has to look put-together because that’s part of her job. The Dairyette girl has red hair and freckles all across her cheeks and nose. She is unforgettable, but no one cares what she thinks of the food.
Tyler said she’s a freak of nature who deserves to get stiffed on a couple of corny dogs. I’m proud of our stack of empty mustard packets, and I’m not sure why. It feels like we did something important, just to have that many empty packets.
“Did you hear that?” Tyler asks. He uses his eyeballs to point to a mess of vines and trash. The brush is thick. It won’t be anything but a stray dog going at an old soup can. I have to reload on mustard. When it thins out, the corndog leaves a grease slick that makes me think of Grandmother’s house in Tennessee, and how I didn’t know that slugs leave trails on the sidewalk. The trails are shaped like dropped spaghetti, and they’re shiny on the concrete. You only see them if you’re looking for them.
“It’s just a dog,” I say, going faster now with the mustard, really slapping it on there. Our mommas don’t like us sneaking off down here because it’s where homeless people go to sleep so the police don’t bother them. Tyler started coming to this spot in the spring, while I was staying with Grandmother, and everybody was giving him a hard time at school for being a pussy and having his nasty scars. Even if he was afraid of a molester, a dangerous man with dirt on his face, Tyler was sure he wouldn’t see kids from school calling him names.
I think about it, but I can’t say what Van or anybody would do with Tyler if they were me. There’ll be some kids like Van at this new school. I’ll make new friends. Momma’s told me that again and again since she had to take the spring to get back on her feet, while I stayed with Grandmother in Tennessee. Now that we’ve moved back to the city for Momma’s new job, I would go to Van’s house to play video games, but he still lives in Cotton Crossings. Momma can’t be driving me all over creation. In the meantime, I have to forget about them and make new friends. What Momma doesn’t understand is that I don’t make friends like Tyler.
She said, “Oh yeah,” and laughed. “What kind of friends do you make?”
I said, “Cool ones. The kind people want to hang out with.” We were eating fish sticks and steam-in-the-bag broccoli. I put ketchup all over everything. She laughed again, and a little bit of fish stick fell out of her mouth and got ketchup on her uniform shirt right above the restaurant logo. She cussed, and sucked her thumb. She rubbed at the stain and stuck out her chest and asked if I could see the red from the ketchup. I told her I couldn’t, but she walked to the bathroom to check in the mirror. It was important to look clean.
From the bathroom, she shouted, “I hate to break it to you, son of mine. But the world is full of people that will embarrass you six ways from Sunday.” She came back and her lipstick was on. “Best to learn that while you’re young.”
I almost blind Tyler with the corndog because the sound of something in the vines surprises me. He pulls his head back, and the skin between his neck and chin fold up like the bends in a drinking straw.
A skinny grey cat shoots out from the leaves, jerking its head. The feathers float to the ground just like feathers always do. A little brown bird is dead in the cat’s mouth. In my shoes, my toes have curled without my permission. We would’ve run like hell if the cat had been a hobo. We look at each other.
I ask, “What’s this supposed to do, again?”
“Lots of things,” Tyler says. “You’ll see.” He’s relieved that the noise in the trees was a cat. His shoulders get round and the lines in his forehead disappear. He says he has an itch and wiggles his nose. He makes the space between his nostrils and his top lip long, and he tries to fix the itch without scratching. He smudges the mustard I applied generously to his blackheads, and I have to put on another coat. Tyler was very specific about full coverage on the problem areas, but it’s starting to look like he wants me to paint his entire face yellow with mustard. He wants his scars to be absolutely invisible, he told me, because they are the biggest problem area.
“Quit moving,” I say. I want to be done now. I helped him steal the corndogs, and I helped him empty mustard packets. Now, after his face, I’m done. It feels weird touching him, and Van would start calling me Fag-O again if he knew I was doing this. “I don’t even get how this works. This whole thing is loony, and I’m trying to be nice to you.”
Tyler’s lips get hard and he says, “It’s clear you know nothing about proper skin care.” He says, “How it works is, the mustard will make your skin tight like mud does when it dries. That opens the pores. And the grease from the corny dog will moisturize. The grit from the corn does the exfoliating. It’s damn-near perfect. My momma and Aunt Tony use mud that looks like diarrhea. They put cucumbers over their eyes and tell me to go play outside and not come back until dark.”
“There are cucumbers?”
“Next time there will be.”
Momma would raise hell if I took food to play with. She would go in her purse and take out her wallet and open it wide so its insides looked like a mouth and her dollar bills looked like a tongue.
She would turn it to me so I could see there wasn’t much money, and she would say, Here, you think there’s so much money laying around for everything – just take it. Take all I got.
She would slap the wallet on the table and go to her bedroom, and there would be light from her television flashing in the crack between the carpet and her door. When I put my ear to the door, I wouldn’t hear any sound.
Tyler stays quiet, and I figure, to him, this is important.
Momma’s told me to be nice to Tyler, and I’ve tried. Once, I had him over to my apartment and tried explaining to him how not to get whooped playing Smear the Queer, how he should take some of the beating so people won’t think he’s a pussy. We were at my apartment, and Smear the Queer was huge in sixth grade. He was asking all these questions right after I told him I had been friends with Van and his group before I went to stay with Grandmother. Van and us always kicked everyone’s ass at Smear the Queer. I was drinking orange soda and watching snowboarding on TV. Tyler could come over, but he had to bring his own snacks and drinks, except for water. Water was free.
“It’s very important to make it look like you tried to stay in the game as long as you could,” I told him.
“But then, won’t people just want to give you the ball so they have a reason to beat on you?”
There was one snowboarder who’s a million times better than the rest of them, and if I were a snowboarder I would just let that one guy who’s really good win the big competition on TV and start something else for the rest of us kind-of-good snowboarders. I wasn’t supposed to be drinking straight from the two-liter, but it was the nicest way to let Tyler know I wasn’t giving him any orange soda.
“Obviously,” I said. “But for a while you just have to deal with it and take the whooping.”
“Then how do you win?”
It hit me: maybe what I’m watching on TV is just what I’m talking about. Maybe all these snowboarders were handing the competition to this one guy, so he wouldn’t come around bothering them all the time.
I said to Tyler, “There’s not a way to win Smear the Queer. Recess ends. It’s like golf. It’s not a winning type of deal. It just sort of ends.”
He looked at me with his jaw hanging open, and I noticed that his teeth were small, and his tongue was purple from the grape Kool Aid he was drinking from my Tennessee Vols cup. There wasn’t a rule against him taking one of our cups next door to fill with his Kool Aid, as long as he left the cup here at the end of the day, but it seemed like he was cheating, him sitting there drinking from my Vols cup with his Sir Purple Tongues-a-lot ass. I had the urge to punch him, and then I wondered quickly if someone had thrown acid on him, the way his scars looked splashed across his face.
“You got to make it so people don’t want to beat the snot out of you all the time,” I said. He nodded slowly, but I don’t think he got it. He had to take it for a while, and then it was okay. That’s just how it was. When I dripped orange soda on the carpet, I rubbed it in with my palm. When we had a house in Cotton Crossings, Momma was freaking out left and right over the carpet, but now at the apartment, she says to rub it in.
The corndogs are getting cold, and the exfoliating skin is starting to peel off. I’ve just finished with all of Tyler’s face. He’s yellow and greasy and full of mustard. The cornbread is in pieces on the ground, and the wiener looks pale and shy without its cover. A train is easing past us, and Grandmother would say it moves like it never knew a care. I try to read all the graffiti and think of the people who put it there. They must have been quite brave. They only had time for one thing, and it was either a cuss word or their name.
“I want to lick it real bad,” Tyler says. “But I can’t. It won’t work.”
I say, “I think I might want to try it.” Tyler holds his shaving mirror to his face. He carries it in his back pocket with a comb and a money clip that holds his library card.
“But you don’t need it,” he says, holding up the second corndog and squeezing the tip with two fingers, testing its sponginess.
“I want to see if it works.” I can’t look at him when I say this, and I check to see if my fly is open because that’s a thing I do without knowing it. It makes Momma ask me if I think I’m invisible. I slide the tip of my finger under the button on my pants and feel for the tab on the zipper. When I find it’s where it ought to be, I take my hand away real quick and look around to see if anyone saw me.
“It won’t work for you,” he says.
“Why the hell not?”
“Like I said, you don’t need it like I do.” He points at me with the corndog.
“Why do you need it?” I ask. I’m not being mean, but that’s how Tyler takes it. He goes to throw the last corndog at the train, but when he pulls his arm back, the thing shoots off the stick and rolls through the weeds. Tyler glares at the empty stick, the wood that was covered by the wiener glistens soft and wet. The train keeps making its thunderstorm noises. He chips off a knob of crispy batter with his thumbnail. When he turns to locate the corndog, his shoulders drop.
“It was fireworks, and I was very little. It was an accident. Scars can fade if they’re treated correctly.”
“I had to stay with my grandmother because my momma was on drugs and had to get help.” That’s a lie. Momma lost her job, and we needed to get back on our feet, and that’s why I spent the spring with Grandmother. I hadn’t thought about Momma as a drug addict until I said it, but it seems like a better fit than saying we ran out of money, which now seems even sadder than it used to. In my book, if someone was a drug addict and got better, she must have had some wild adventures. If she ran out of money, she was just irresponsible, and that was everything a mother shouldn’t be.
“I’ve heard about that situation.” The lines of sweat on Tyler’s neck are yellow and milky like the eggs Grandmother would mix for Sunday breakfast.
“It was crack, a real bad crack situation.” Tyler takes a last look in the mirror and slips it into his back pocket, making a big show of it, raising his shoulder like he was grown and the mirror was his wallet. We begin walking along the tracks toward the road and the apartments, Tyler sweating off that mustard so drops streak down the front of his shirt. The bugs will be out soon, and I don’t know if they like mustard. I think about how Tyler’s in for a rough time if they do.
I stop and wonder what Van would do if he were me because I come across a car trader magazine on the ground by where the train tracks hit the road going back to our apartments. It’s the same type of magazine Van and me would steal from the gas station at the corner where you turn into Cotton Crossings. The gas station was in the parking lot with a dry cleaner, and that was the furthest we were allowed to go. Cotton Crossings had everything we could want. There was a little fish pond with a fountain in the middle and catfish that would eat damn near whatever you had. There was a playground with a yellow plastic slide that didn’t burn anyone’s legs. Next to that was a field for sports. There was even a pool that only Cotton Crossings people could use. Adults went running for exercise.
It was like the gas station was there just for us too, so we could buy Cokes and candy and have a place to go. First, we would look through the trader magazine all the way from beginning to end. Then we would go through it again and circle cars we liked. Van liked Mustangs. I liked Firebirds. I think maybe I could brush off the dirt and take the magazine home. When I try to flip through the pages, I see it got wet, a lot of the paper stuck together, hard and rippled and stained, like someone spilled coffee all over it. Momma doesn’t want me going to the gas stations by where we live now. I roll up the magazine and think of throwing it, but I remember how Tyler looked with the corndog. I drop it where I found it.
Tyler’s out ahead of me now, swinging his arms and twisting his wrists, like he’s walk-dancing. I call for him to wait up.
“You ever tried ketchup?” I ask. “I got ketchup. It’s for putting on broccoli.”
He says, “I have some ideas for treatments.” He tells me about a nighttime treatment he’s been thinking about. Schoolhouse glue is involved.
“Would it be like a facial?” I touch my forehead with my fingertips. Then I realize I’m touching my face where Tyler’s scars are the worst. I slide my thumbs in my pockets.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “It would be a spot treatment.” He describes how the school glue dries on your skin and then you peal it off along with whatever’s clogging your pores.
“What about facials?”
“Facials are important,” he explains. “But when you get down to it, they could be given with almost anything. The important thing is that you keep it on long enough for it to work.” Some of the mustard has started to turn dark and brownish. Drops of mustard-sweat bulge, waiting to fall from the tips of his nose and chin. I wish I won’t make fun of Tyler when school starts. As much as I want him to take his shirt and wipe off that mustard, I get why he doesn’t. I get that as long as there’s something on his face there’s the chance of something good happening. Until the very last second, when he pulls his head up from washing his face in the sink, there’s a chance that everything’s going to go back to how it should be.
Dan Townsend has lived in New York, Texas, and Alabama. He recently completed an M.A. in English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He still loves corndogs.