Miss Fritz liked boys to do things for her and in return she’d do things for them. Once in the grocery store, I saw her bend straight over in front of Buckner while she reached for the shiniest apple at the back of the box. Buck moved a cucumber through the air in a lewd way till it almost touched her bottom, but she stood and smiled a little when she saw what he’d done. Miss Fritz was full of vicious little smiles.
She loved her ants, too. The ones that disrupted the food line get eaten, she told us, her eyes narrowing at me and that pisser Buckner, who stood in her kitchen balling his hands in his pockets, playing with himself like no one could tell. She held up a glass square of dirt wormed through with squirrely tunnels. The ants skittered wild and tried to sting her fingers through the glass. She gave us words about following the rules she was about to lay out for us. Tapping the glass, she thumbed in sugar water from an eyedropper. All the ants clamored up the tunnels to where the sugar water blacked the sand. “Don’t you fuck things up,” she said.
Whenever Miss Fritz cussed at us, we straightened right up.
“That old cow Beatrice Perkins has a TV I want,” she said. “You boys are gonna lift it for me. Aren’t you now?”
Of course we agreed. We’d heard the rumors.
“I hope you two have worked out your prior arguments. You boys need to employ a bit of smarts here.” She knocked on Buckner’s forehead. “Got any in there?”
Buckner about pissed his pants. All I could think about was opening up that shirt of hers and watching those titties flop out like white, wonderful fruit. I had plans. I’d once gotten Hazy Mitchell’s shirt opened and her bra done taken off. This was no easy feat considering what Buckner nearly forced on her last year. Buck was the sorta fella that would jam his thumb into a person’s hurt and laugh. After I got Hazy Mitchell’s shirt off, I sat there looking at her tits like two goose-pimpled pears and she turned smallish and blue, like she was cold. I wanted to pull her close and let her feel my warm breath. I knew I could blow some blush into her, but her eyes darted and her white fingers bunched the cloth at her knees, so I backed away and let her be blue and cold till she buttoned her shirt and became a girl more confident. I didn’t press. There’s a large measure of thumbs in this world already. Truth be told, I’d been expecting something that would make my blood jump. I thought my heart would lurch rabbit fast at such a sight and I’d be shown a world beyond. The one that mattered, you know? My fingers found Hazy’s cheek and I told her it was okay, that I understood, that she was a fine girl worth waiting for, but God honest, Hazy Mitchell with her shirt undone was simple as a bologna sandwich. Miss Fritz though, she was a room mean full of light. She excited a little whimper from my belly. Her lips were moist, her throat soft and open. It’d be a full-on riot to put my mouth on that vein there in her neck and feel it throb hot under my tongue.
“Beatrice goes every Tuesday to get her nails done up by that Chinese girl at the mall,” Miss Fritz said. “You fine boys will be skipping class that day. Go get me that television, you hear?” She straightened and settled the ant farm back on the table. With one finger, she touched the tip of her left breast. A little dot sprung up there through her shirt and my heart dropped. Buckner leaned heavy against the wall. We had no choice. “Of course,” we told her. “Anything you want Miss Fritz.”
There were parts of her plan Buckner and me weren’t too keen on. We were outside Buckner’s house, smoking cigarettes. His mom wouldn’t care that we were underage. There wasn’t much she cared about at all except the antenna being turned to pick up her afternoon soaps. She’d been like that ever since Buck’s dad went to prison for jacking Billy Walker’s gas station and holding him to a chair with a knife grinning against his throat. Buckner’s face turned a shallow green sucking on the Marlboro. I didn’t say nothing about it, but I saw him just hold the smoke in his cheek before letting it out. He wasn’t drawing it deep into himself and experiencing the smoke the way he should be. That was the crooked part of most folks, the way I see it. It’s how the whole world ends up going wrong. The main thing that concerned me about Miss Fritz’s plan was that she wanted Buckner to be part of it. Everyone had heard about our scuffle last year over Hazy.
“Look,” I said, pointing the hot tip of the cigarette at him. “No one says you have to do a damn thing.”
He drew smoke into his cheek. “I can do my part. I just think I should get to go first with her. I’m the one more likely to get nabbed since I’m outside on watch visible and all.”
I leaned forward a hitch, letting the blue smoke leak from my nose. “You know what happened to her, to Miss Fritz?”
He said no. He was high curious to find out though.
“I heard my mom telling my pop about it.” I tried to mention my mom and pop each time Buck and I laid sights on each other. “Back when they was all kids, Miss Fritz apparently had a hard hankering for Tommy Luthor,” I told him. “Followed him around all doe-eyed and shit.”
“The dude who raped Beatrice Perkins?”
“Yep. Tommy was a mean son of bitch, he was. One day when Miss Fritz was following him around, he whips about and knocks her to the ground. She just lays still, my mom says, all quiet with her eyes closed like she’ll let him do whatever he wants to her. Pop told me she had a teensy smile on her face like a puppy dog was licking her hand. Well, Tommy Luthor drags her over to an ant pile. He kicks the pile once to rile them and then hauls up Miss Fritz’s shirt. By this time her smile is gone and her eyes are all wide.” I held up both my hands, fingers spread. “Well, Tommy Luthor clamps his hand over her mouth and shoves her on top of the ant pile, naked belly and all. She starts to twitching and screaming, but her screams were kinda muffled. Folks couldn’t quite make out what was going on. My mom says no one moved. They couldn’t tell if Miss Fritz was laughing or crying or what. Finally a teacher comes out and Tommy Luthor runs off. That’s when everyone sees exactly what he done. Those ants did a number on her, pop says. Her whole belly was a red mess. Her hair was everywhere and she was screaming up a storm that she loved Tommy Luthor she loved him she loved him she loved him.” The last of the smoke trickled from my nose.
“That’s some heavy shit, man,” Buckner said.
“Ain’t barely a soul left who understands devotion, Buck. But I do. I aim to see her belly. I want to see that and everything else. I’m going to touch those scars and kiss them so she’ll come to know that all boys aren’t like Tommy Luthor. Some of us can understand. You just want her to suck your cock, but I can see the glory there waiting to come out. I want to fix her and let it out. You’re unworthy, Buck. That’ll be why I go first.”
Beatrice Perkins’ house was small and yellow as an old woman’s elbow. It wasn’t any difficult chore to jimmy the back door. Being inside someone’s house when they aren’t there, deep in their personal rooms, is like watching a girl get ready for a bath through a window, or stealing cigarettes from your mom’s purse and finding a tampon. There’s no lies in an empty house. We walked through her rooms and I ran my fingers over her things. Books I ain’t never read. A drawing of a lily on a scratch pad. A Jesus statue. Little plants with quivering leaves in round pots. The air was dawn quiet inside. Sunday barn quiet. Dust floated in the vast square of sun flooding through the window. This is how people become free, when all we see are their things. This was a time of truth, but Buckner was in her drawers, holding up Beatrice Perkins’ underwear in his small hands, rubbing the crotch of her panties against his nose.
“Smells wet and ready to go,” he said.
“Put that down,” I told him. “We need to make fast since you ain’t following the plan.”
It was Hazy that let on to me what Buck tried to do to her, how he’d grabbed her wrists and shoved his red elbow into her neck as he leaned her over the hood of a Ford. There’s a look a person gets when they’re for-real scared. They vibrate something fierce and if nothing else it means they’re living that moment all out and not drawing the world halfway into themselves like most. But there’s times when the world is just too much and when I saw Hazy shaking in front of me outside the Quickie Mart, her hands twisted all upset against her belly where she said she still felt the truck’s engine rumbling, well I knew then that Buck and me were going to have it out some day. Certain qualities must be protected. This was a fact that Buckner was too narrow to understand.
We walked through all the rooms in Beatrice Perkins’ house, but there wasn’t a TV to be seen. My stomach turned a hair loopy.
Buckner leered at me and his fingers curled and uncurled. “You already got it you dog-ass bastard,” he said. “I’ll not be having your sloppy seconds again.” His hand seized up solid in a fist. He came at me with a left hook, then a right. Buckner was a smaller fellow, lean in his clothes like a rattling of axe handles, but he was fast and plugged hard. I caught one on my cheek and the world wobbled. I came up into his belly with my knee and felt the air burst out of his mouth. His face puffed out. When we tussled over Hazy, it was all fists and words, messed hair and red cheeks, but this—Buckner pulled a fucking knife from his back pocket. It glinted like a mad thing in the hushed sunlight.
I grabbed one of those round flowerpots and chucked it into his face. The pot crunched against his nose and he yelped. Then I pushed without thinking and Buckner fell back, his arms whaling about in the air. His head cracked against a coffee table and made an awful sound. Oh God, what an awful sound. It’s a sound a person can’t turn back from, one that’ll be heard forever. His arms flopped to his sides and his whole body shuddered once and melted into a shape almost like Bucker, but not quite. His head leaked out blood all over Beatrice Perkins’ floor.
I didn’t know what to do. I ran.
Miss Fritz came to the door like a farmer’s wife that hadn’t seen a crop in two years. “What’s wrong with you?” she said.
“Buckner.” The words wouldn’t come with my belly sucking hard. “Let me in.”
She backed away. When she saw the blood on my fingers, this little smile cracked into her face. She sat at her kitchen table where she kept the ant farm and ran a finger along the tunnels behind the glass. She tapped at the ants with her unpainted nails. “You should see this new colony I’m working on,” she said. “It’ll be the biggest one yet.”
“There weren’t a TV at Beatrice Perkins’ house.”
The tapping stopped. “Don’t speak her name in my kitchen.” Chair legs screeched on the floor. “The best way to catch ants is to lay out sugar water. They’ll come swarming in all on their own.” Her face directed a meanness straight at me. “Then they’re yours.”
I told her I didn’t care about the ants. I told her there was no TV and Buckner may have been killed and I was there for what she had promised. I needed to be redeemed.
“What did I promise now, hon?” She leaned back, her breasts tight in her shirt, kitchen light sliding down her shin. She was barefoot. Her feet were lean and bony and white. If only I could take them in my palms matters might be set right.
“Show me your belly,” I said. “I want to see it.”
“I don’t see any TV here.”
I stepped toward her. “I know what Tommy Luthor did to you. I can help you.” Kneeling, her knees came up front of my face. “Let me fix you,” I said. My head was on her thighs and she was hot under my left ear. My right was open and waiting for the touch of her fingers. “Please, I’ve done everything you asked.” My shadow mixed with hers on the floor and I swear her shadow’s hand stroked my head but hers did not.
“You didn’t bring me her TV.”
“There weren’t one.”
“Beatrice Perkins was always a liar,” Miss Fritz said. “Going on about this flat screen TV she’d bought. I knew it was a downright lie.” Her thighs tightened under my ear. “That bitch has been lying for years. She lied about the TV. She lied about Tommy Luthor. She’ll have some explaining now to do, won’t she, with what all’s laying in her house bleeding out now. I let on to Officer Muldroni that I heard her going on about how cute that Buckner boy was.” Miss Fritz laughed. “You did a good job, I suppose. Stand up and I’ll give you a reward.”
She leaned back a bit more and pulled up her blouse. A white and perfect belly. It was bright and quivered slightly. She laughed and it bucked.
“It ain’t all scarred up,” I said, my mouth dry.
“Of course not. Come over here and you can kiss it if you want.”
I backed away.
“What’s the matter, hon?” She unbuttoned her shirt. Her breasts appeared, goose-pimpled and full. She touched her nipples and they hardened. They were ordinary, fat and hanging like cold hams. Purple veins shot through the curve. There was no glory, nothing but the dumb weight of them in the room. She sat there like that, open in front of me but closed and unreachable, her thumbs tracing the paths where the ants skittered. Light came pale and useless through the windows. The fridge hummed. She cocked her head at me. “Hon,” she said. “It’s all sugar water.”