Of all the locales in my neighborhood, Michael D’s house held the most fascination. And the most fear. The Ewells’ cavernous, run-down Victorian was a lawless playground, a strange Lord of the Flies island where we carved our names into the backs of closet doors, poured hot candle wax onto scurrying centipedes and silverfish, and burned stacks of old newspapers in the non-working fireplace. Hide-n-seek meant endless waiting in the dank corners of an unlit basement or behind empty bookcases in the musty attic. I didn’t know which was more terrifying, the creepy hiding places or the anxious anticipation of being found. So I always gave myself up shouting, Here I am! Here I am!
Our unruly exploits were thanks to the virtual nonexistence of Michael D.’s parents. Mr. Ewells—a handsome Robert De Niro look-alike, including the trademark mole on his upper right cheek—spent 14-hour days at the auto shop working as head mechanic, making late-night cameos in grease-stained blue work pants and Dickies short sleeves. He rarely spoke, and when he did it was in short, clipped responses. There was a coiled nervousness in his voice, like at any moment he’d explode into a stream of expletives. And to Mrs. Ewells, his checked-out specter of a housewife, he’d only shake his head in confounded frustration. Mrs. Ewells—a squat, peasant build of a woman with ruddy cheeks and requisite bad teeth—wore her hair in a loose bun with a chopstick stuck through it and an eternally lost expression on her face. Theirs was a union I never understood. Maybe she was a shapely siren back in the day, her pale blue eyes casting the net of seduction. Or maybe theirs was a marriage of necessity, a have-to. Nevertheless, she was always exhausted. She complained that there was just so much to be done. Indeed the house was in a state of perennial disarray inside as well as out—an empty cereal bowl atop a dusty mantle, miscellaneous piles of dirty clothes on the floor, dishes with dried egg and bits of unidentifiable meat piled high in the kitchen sink, and those 12-foot ceilings festooned with cobwebs.
But nothing got cleaned. Ever.
Mrs. Ewells would sweep the same discolored patch of floor the shape of Alaska over and over again in pained slow-motion, breaking only to corral stray hairs into her bun, wiping the back of her hand on her forehead signaling defeat. Taking full advantage, Michael D. and I would sail past her ghostly figure on our way up the creaky staircase to begin a game of Can’t Touch the Ground. We’d designate a long and elaborate course with a Start and Finish whereby we had to travel any means possible other than the floor which was, of course, a seething pit of hot lava. Sometimes we’d allow one t-shirt or dishtowel to serve as protective shield tossed onto a strategic spot of floor, a life-preserver good for one use only. Touching the ground meant AAAAAHHHhhhh!!! and one of us turning into the Lava Monster whose sole mission it was to bring down the other. All of which results in our swinging from cabinet doors, sliding down banisters, and clinging to bookcases, leaving a trail of destruction in our wake. Poor Mrs. Ewells. It wouldn’t take much for her exhaustion to lead to long afternoon naps. She’d later emerge from her bedroom bleary-eyed and mumbling to herself, There’s so much to do, so much to do… I’ve just got to get this house clean. Then came an ancient groan of resignation as she continued her monotonous sweeping.
In the midst of these and other games we’d make up, Michael D.’s older brother would suddenly appear and wrest himself into our world of make-believe, the pig’s head on a wooden stake. Kevin always played too rough, pushed the games too far, and turned our whimsy into something combative. He was especially fond of pinning one of us face down, arms behind our back demanding, Cry for mercy! Say it, cry MERCY! With shoulder-length greasy brown hair, eyes just a bit too far apart and gray teeth, he looked the part of the baddest bully on the block. There were instances, however, when I watched his approach from a distance and imagined him a handsome Jesus, though a bit more rugged than the one I’d seen in the stained glass windows of my grandparents’ church. But each time he got close enough, I knew he’d never be found in an emerald green pasture stroking the wool of a pure white lamb.
For a teenager, he had an unusually wide and muscular build and flaunted his budding masculinity by often going shirtless. I was always a little spooked by his presence but couldn’t help eyeing the sculpted biceps, the dark wisps of hair that swirled between his pecs and beneath his navel. I had seen my tall, skinny brother shirtless but he didn’t look anything like this. Kevin must have enjoyed my curious glances and known I was an easy target. One time in the middle of Can’t Touch the Ground, Kevin stood at the top of the staircase watching us more intently than usual. It made me nervous the way he leered at me. But at the same time, I felt a tingling of excitement. I’d been chosen. Then Kevin sent Michael D. to 7-11 for Hot Tamales and bottled Cokes, a fool’s errand in order to buy some time with his ogling pledge. Once alone, Kevin led me into a hall closet beneath the stairway where he began the inelegant rubbing and groping. Much like Kevin’s play, these explorations were rough and frantic, ending just as quickly as they started. So whenever Kevin sent Michael D. to the store, I knew what came next.
Though he was a far cry from Captain James T. Kirk or mother’s Marlboro Man, I gave little resistance to these routine encounters. I was captivated by his hard body and thickness below the waist, wanting my body to look like his—the defined arms and chest, the swirls of body hair, the substantial penis. At the age of ten, I had willingly entered a dark, forbidden world and felt I was discovering some ancient adult mystery.
But this kind of uninvited attention wasn’t completely new to me. In first grade a thirty-something genial neighbor of Nan and Pap’s lured me to his back porch swing where he unzipped his pants and placed my hand between his legs telling me how good it made him feel and what a good job I was doing. I wasn’t afraid until I heard Nanda calling my name to come home. It was only then I felt the sting of guilt. I knew, on some level, that what was happening was wrong. In third grade the forty-something clerk at Beall’s Department Store fondled me in the fitting room with desperate and shaking hands. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me to relax and said he was only trying to measure my inseam. So when Kevin groped me, I wasn’t afraid. I just thought oh-it’s-this-again. In a way it made me feel special, important. It gave me a power I didn’t have anywhere else. Even as they grew to be more aggressive and less predictable, I came to expect and even looked forward to the clandestine encounters with Kevin.
One night Michael D. and I set up camp in their weedy, untamed backyard with a pup tent and sleeping bags—his G.I. Joe camouflage, mine Hot Wheels with orange flames along the zipper. It was easy to believe that we were really in the woods because we couldn’t see the house or bordering streets from all the towering trees. We’d found a bag of marshmallows in the kitchen pantry that we planned to roast—or rather burn to a crisp—when we eventually built a campfire. Just as we began gathering small sticks and twigs for the fire, Kevin leapt from the bushes. He gave a shrill coyote AAAAAAH-OOOOOOH! and issued his decree as Chief of the territory. He wore jeans blown-out at the knees with a white tank top and carried a homemade wooden slingshot. Pointing the slingshot directly at his little brother, he ordered a temporary exile motioning him to the garage and directing me, his prisoner, to get inside the tent. I did as I was told and nervously waited for his return, sitting Indian-style rocking back and forth with my hands on my knees. I heard Michael D. off in the distance crying No! Kevin, lemme go I said! I’m tellin’, lemme go! Then I couldn’t hear him anymore. The garage was too far away. As usual, with no parents around to intervene, I knew we were on our own.
Kevin returned and poked his head into the tent, raised an eyebrow looking down at his crotch and squeezed it with his right hand. Crawling inside he peeled off his shirt and tossed it in the corner. He told me to roll onto my stomach. I did. He was on me in an instant. Unlike the other encounters which were more spontaneous and improvisational, this time was fiercely premeditated. This time I was more scared than excited. He pinned me down and held my wrists while I squirmed helplessly underneath. I knew what was coming. With his jeans still on, he ground into my backside and grunted through those gray teeth, That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh. He smelled of cigarette smoke and raw onions. I’m the husband and you’re the wife, he said. This is what married couples do, this is makin’ luuuuuuuuuuv. I didn’t care if he wanted to pretend that he was the husband and I was the wife. I just didn’t want him to hurt me. Then I heard him unzip his pants. Wait, wait! No-no-no-no-no! He yanked down my shorts and spat in his hand, the warm wetness offering little warning before the lightning bolt of excruciating pain. I screamed into the soft folds of my Hot Wheels sleeping bag until it was over.
Climbing out a tiny side window, Michael D. eventually freed himself from the garage. He arrived at our tent to find Kevin standing shirtless just outside the door flap, zipping his fly and shifting his pants up with his wrists. I stayed curled up in my sleeping bag wincing in pain. I could barely move.
“What were y’all doin’?” Michael D. asked, sensing a betrayal.
“None ‘a yer business, dickweed,” Kevin scowled, and he stomped back toward the house. I felt a suffocating guilt and tried not to cry.
Michael D. and I sat in the tent eating marshmallows right out of the bag and made an effort to talk as if nothing had happened. We didn’t feel like staying up all night as we’d planned. Eventually, the silences in between grew longer. Then nothing. Then sleep.
Before sunrise I awoke, gathered my things and crept silently away from the tent. Away from Kevin and the Ewells’ house. Away from the simplicity of forts, crabapple wars and narrow escapes from the Lava Monster, and headed home to Tanglewood.