Jimmy Johansson was easily the coolest kid in our grade. His family had moved to our small town from Miami and even after two years it seemed Jimmy’s tan had not faded. His unruly, sun-bleached curls were barely contained by his baseball cap, which he always wore backwards unless we were on the field.
His dad coached our little league team and he let Jimmy pitch most every game. The man was like a perfectly aged version of his son, the same confident smile and swaggering gait, chest out and arms back. He had a booming voice and when he laughed, others laughed with him as if compelled by the sympathetic vibration of it alone.
He was not laughing at the bottom of the ninth inning when we were down by two runs in the championship game against the Rotary. Our team, the Kiwanas, had gone undefeated all season. It was a given that we would win the championship. In fact, there was already a party planned for after the game with ice cream, pizza and a sleepover at Jimmy’s house for a select few of us.
From my position at shortstop I had watched Jimmy’s confidence ebb like an inner tube with a slow leak all afternoon. He was slower to spring back to the mound after every pitch and he tugged the bill of his hat lower over his eyes every time the ump called a ball. Coach Johansson’s calls of encouragement from behind the chain link fence that served as our dugout became less smiley and more robotic with every wayward pitch his son threw.
“This one’s yours Jimbo!” he called. “Bring the heat son! Follow through, bare down!”
We lost. It was not because of some catastrophic error. The other boys just played harder and beat us. They brought in a fresh pitcher who struck out the three boys at the bottom of our line-up like he was just warming up.
We lined up and “good gamed” the boys from the Rotary, offering a single limp open handshake, which was more of a grazing of palms. Only a few of us made eye contact. Jimmy was at the back of the line and I could hear him behind me. He never responded with “good game,” just “yeah” in a hard, flat tone to each grubby, grass stained blue uniform that filed past.
We gathered in the shady corner of right field after the game, a solemn group of twelve-year-olds sitting Indian style, heads down, fingering blades of grass. Our parents hung back a respectable distance, chatting softly amongst themselves. A series of cheers rose up from the Rotary who were gathered in the parking lot around the tailgate of the coaches pick-up truck. I could see they were eating something, Astro Pops maybe.
“You boys played real hard this season,” Coach Johansson began on a knee in front of us. “Every single one of you gave his best and that’s all you can do. Sometimes the other guys just have a better day.”
“Peter, I like that hustle I saw, running down that long ball to left field. Jake, you nearly knocked the cover off that ball today. Steven, that was about the prettiest bunt I’ve ever seen.”
He paused a moment as he surveyed the tops of our heads then he continued on, finding something nice to say to each boy. I got a “way to scrap after those hard grounders,” which was generous considering I had let two pass right between my legs.
He never said anything to Jimmy.
“Now, boys. The big question is, who wants pizza and ice cream?”
There was a better than average cheer, considering the circumstances and we all mostly sprung to our feet, ready for our carefree summer to begin, free of practice and waking up early for games. Jimmy was the last to get up which made things awkward for the rest of us, because we all took our cues from him.
We dispersed in clusters to pile into station wagons and the beds of pick up trucks to head over to Sollecito’s Pizza. Since I was one of the boys invited to sleepover at Jimmy’s house my mom had brought along my sleeping bag and a duffle with a change of clothes and a toothbrush. These items were crammed into the tiny hatchback of Coach Johansson’s 280-Z. I was folded into the cramped backseat with Roger McGrail and Jimmy was riding shotgun, his arm resting on the open window. He had not said a word.
The coach put in some Glen Campbell tape and turned it up loud. The wind whipped through the little sports car and as he steered with the wrist of his left hand he kept looking sideways over at Jimmy who only stared out the window with the same brooding expression.
“You gonna pout the rest of the day like a baby?” he boomed over the din of the music.
Jimmy did not respond.
“I’m talkin’ to you son.”
Jimmy’s only response was to tug the bill of his hat down further over his eyes, I think to mask the tears that were forming there.
The coach yanked the steering wheel so hard I bumped my head against the small side window as he cut the car over to the shoulder. His face was flushed and he leaned over to the passenger side gripping Jimmy by the shoulders with his enormous hands. The music was still very loud and we couldn’t hear what he said to his son through clenched teeth but whatever it was it got Jimmy’s attention because the boy’s eyes were wide and shining and there was no trace of the cool confidence he usually commanded.
“Yes sir!” he said. “No sir.”
A moment later we were back on the road again as if nothing had happened. I stared out the window the rest of the way there, rubbing my head while Glen Campbell sang about heartbreak. By the time we reached the pizza place Jimmy’s mood had changed. His hat was back in the reverse position and he was all swagger and jokes.
The whole team swarmed around a long row of tables in Sollecito’s constantly shifting around and getting up in groups to go to the Jukebox with a fist full of quarters to play “Rock You Like a Hurricane” or “Panama.” Others clustered around the large consoles in the corner, feeding quarters into Defender or Centipede.
I had already blown the four quarters I had stashed in my sock and I was sitting alone at the end of the table sipping my root beer and waiting for the pizza. Mrs. Johansson, who was sitting in a booth nearby with the coach and two other parents saw me and came over. She leaned in close and pressed a crisp dollar bill into my hand.
“There you go hun,” she said. She was pretty in a way that none of our moms were and she smelled like coconut and some other nameless exotic thing that made me want to never smell anything else. I blushed and murmured thank you as I slid out of the chair and headed over to join the others.
By the time we got to Baskin Robbins for ice cream, our number had dwindled by half and an hour later only four of us loaded into the Johansson’s station wagon to go home with them. I had never been to Jimmy’s house, but I had heard stories. I knew there was a pool, which was crazy enough in our little mountain town, but it was rumored that they also had a trampoline and a billiard room.
Mrs. Johansson pressed a button when we pulled into the smooth, concrete driveway and the garage door swung open automatically. I had never seen anything like that before. We piled out of the car into the orderly garage with bicycles hung against one wall and a pegboard of meticulously arranged tools on the other. You couldn’t even get a car into our garage because it was piled high with moldy boxes and old junk my parents weren’t ready to part with.
“Welcome boys, come on in the house,” Mrs. Johansson said swinging the door open into the kitchen. “You can take all of your things down into the den. Jimmy, show your guests the way.”
We passed through the kitchen, which sparkled in the last light of the evening. The granite counter tops gleamed like mirrors and there was an enormous bowl of fresh fruit sitting at one end. The kitchen opened up into the living room, which had a large sectional couch covering the perimeter of two walls. The room smelled like leather and pipe smoke and the upholstery from the couch was smooth and cool against my hand as we passed through, deeper into the house.
The den was three steps down, sunken into the middle of the house. There was a round fireplace in the center of the room (something I’d only ever seen on television) and a giant wooden television cabinet against the far wall. The walls were a rich, dark wood paneling lit dimly by a few tasteful lamps with multi-colored shades that I understand now must have been Tiffany lamps. There were a couple of low, comfortable couches and a La-z-boy chair.
“Sick, what the hell is that Jimmy?”
I had been so wrapped up in the rest of the details of this room straight off of a movie set that I had not yet noticed the centerpiece on the wall opposite the TV, but Peter had and he was standing under it now pointing.
“Oh, that’s Boris,” Jimmy said. “My Dad took him down on a hunting trip when he was nineteen.”
Boris was an enormous wild boar, or rather the head of one. The mouth was frozen in a teeth-baring snarl and the yellowed tusks were the size of kitchen knives. The eyes were the worst. I realized of course that they were really just glass, like marbles, but they reflected the light of the room in a way that made them appear to glow from within.
“Shiiiit. That. Is. Awesome,” Roger said pushing past me with an outstretched hand. He walked right up to the thing and touched the point of one of the tusks.
“How’d he kill it?” Peter asked stroking the wiry pelt with the tips of his fingers.
“Crossbow,” Jimmy said matter-of-factly. “Him and his dad were in the backwoods of Alabama with his grandpa. They’d been out for two days and were about to break camp and head back. In those two days they hadn’t seen so much as a squirrel’s pecker when they heard this real low grunt and a rustling in the dry leaves somewhere back past the tents.”
As Jimmy recounted the story his voice lowered, his shoulders pulled back and he gestured with his hands, painting the scene before us as I’m certain he had heard a hundred times before.
“Dad was the only one with his weapon close by. It was a brand new crossbow and you know what it’s like to have a new toy right?”
We all nodded that yes, we knew what it was like. My parents didn’t even allow me to own a plastic gun.
“So before they knew what was happening, the damned thing stampedes out of the brush, big as a Texas freight train. It charged into one of the tents, shredding it with its tusks. It was real hungry and you know a wild boar will eat anything when it’s hungry.”
I didn’t know if that was true before, but looking up at the ugly thing, I believed it now.
“Grandpa and Great Grandpa Mike were scrambling to the truck to get their guns but my Dad hadn’t moved and now Boris was staring him down and snorting. Dad lifts up the crossbow and fires. That first arrow hits the big pig in the shoulder and it squeals like a banshee. The kickback knocked Dad off the stump and while Boris was stamping around, tearing up the entire campsite Dad was trying to reload the bow. He finally got another arrow loaded just as Boris was making a squealing run straight at him. Dad let another arrow fly and this one hit ‘em right between the eyes and dropped that one-ton piece of fatback to the ground. Look, you can see the hole right there.”
We all moved closer and stared up at the small bare black spot between Boris’s eyes. It seemed to me like it would have made a bigger mark and I guess my skepticism must have shown on my face.
“The taxidermatologist guy was like the best one in the world. That’s why you can barely see the scar,” Jimmy said putting the matter to rest.
We all nodded, our eyes glued to the spot. We were so wrapped up in the story that we hadn’t noticed that the hero of the story had entered behind us.
“He’s a mean-looking son of a gun ain’t he?” The coach’s voice boomed causing me to jump.
He was holding a tea glass but I don’t think it was tea he was drinking because it was mostly clear and it smelled like the doctor’s office to me. I had a sharp muscle memory of a needle stinging my right buttock and I resisted the urge to rub it.
We all nodded and said, “yes sir.”
“Well, you boys have fun now, but don’t be waking us up all night giggling and playing grab ass.”
With that, he turned and left the room.
It was too cold to swim in the small pool in their back yard, so we jumped on the trampoline for a while then we went to the basement and played pool, or tried to. Jimmy was the only one who really knew how to play so it wasn’t much fun for the rest of us. I wondered if either Peter or Roger knew why they had been picked to sleepover because I had no idea why he picked me.
I wasn’t cool. I was pretty good at baseball and most other sports because my Dad loved them and it’s what we did together, but I was tall, skinny and awkward. I was also good in school which didn’t earn me a lot of points unless I helped my buddies cheat on tests, which I did even though I felt tremendously guilty, especially at church with my mom and sister on Sunday mornings.
But Jimmy had picked me and I was grateful. He was really a cool guy. There was more evidence of this in his bedroom. He had three Punt, Pass and Kick trophies from when he used to live in Miami. He had a framed Bob Griese jersey from the Miami Dolphins that was autographed and he had a complete collection of ninja weapons including nunchucks and throwing stars. He also had the largest collection of Playboy magazines I had ever seen, but in all honesty I had really only ever seen the torn cover of one in the parking lot of the A&P. The pictures made my face heat up and my pulse race with some nameless energy like the hum of an electrical current. I was equally relieved and devastated when Mrs. Johansson knocked on the door telling us to get ready for bed and Jimmy had to shove them all back under his mattress.
Back down in the den we had our sleeping bags rolled out head to toe in a square around the fireplace. Jimmy was at my feet and Roger’s feet were at my head. I hoped he kept them in his sleeping bag because they smelled like old cheese. We laughed giddily into our pillows and stage-whispered insults at each other. Concern was expressed that Peter might piss the bed. Peter deflected said concern by saying if he was going to piss anywhere it would be into Jimmy’s sleeping mouth.
Roger was the first to fall asleep, quickly followed by Jimmy. I tried to keep Peter talking but he finally said to shut up because he was tired. The large grandfather clock by the steps chimed low once. I don’t think I had ever been up past one in the morning except for the time I had the flu and was throwing up all night.
The anxiety that had been bubbling slowly all day was a rolling boil now and I was sweating as I listened to Roger’s high whistling snore and the tick of the old clock. I just wanted to be home in my own bed, surrounded by my things but that seemed as unattainable to me as the prospect of actually falling asleep.
The sleeping bag was hot and the plastic material clung to my bare legs, but I didn’t dare to unzip it and leave an opening for the darkness of the room to creep in with its cold tentacles. The house creaked and settled and there was a dog howling somewhere down the street. My mouth was chalky and dry as I flipped over to my stomach for the hundredth time, hoping that this new position would be the one that would escort me blissfully into unconsciousness. I could hear my own pulse pounding in my ear against the rough couch pillow I was using. Like everything else in the house, it emitted a foreign smell like I imagined some hunting lodge might smell, wood smoke and leather. It was the smell of men. Tough men who killed wild boars and laughed in the face of fear, who didn’t need coddling and didn’t need the soft, cool touch of a mother’s hand.
I was deeply regretting the Mountain Dew I drank a couple of hour before because I had to pee so badly my teeth hurt. I was running out of options and my fear of being the kid who pissed the bed was even worse than the kid who called his mom in the middle of the night to pick him up.
I unzipped the bag and sat up. It was dark in the windowless room except for the weak light filtering in from the windows of the living room above. I got to my feet and tiptoed around Jimmy toward the stairs. I made sure to avoid looking toward the left wall where I knew the massive head of Boris would be glowering down at me.
In the living room, I felt my way along the wall toward the hallway that went back to the bedrooms and I nearly knocked a small picture frame down. It was lighter in the hallway because the door to Jimmy’s parents’ bedroom was slightly ajar and I could see the blue flicker of a television. I groaned inaudibly and continued to walk down the hall. The bathroom door was the last one to the left before the Johansson’s bedroom. As I neared I could hear them. The low grunts of the coach and a higher, keening sound that could only be Mrs. Johansson. To my twelve-year-old ears the cadence of their noises sounded like they were doing some difficult exercise together like curling dumbbells. I could not help myself. Before I stepped into the bathroom I glanced over my shoulder through the opening to their room. The coach was naked and crouched astride the bed, thrusting behind the naked Mrs. Johansson, who, I realized too late, was looking in my direction. Before I could turn away and disappear into the bathroom, our eyes locked and she shook her head once firmly. There was a deadly serious look in her eye that there was no mistaking. It said: “You did not see this.”
I closed the bathroom door behind me as quietly as I could and I did not turn the light on. In the darkness I managed to find the toilet and rather than risk it, I sat down and peed. The relief was immediate and as I washed my hands in the sink I felt suddenly exhausted, like I might actually be able to sleep. I dried my hands with the towel on the rack by the sink and then I opened the door.
I nearly bumped into the Coach who was standing there, all six foot four inches of him, filling the doorframe. He was naked except for a pair of boxer shorts and he reached out with one of his large hands and gripped my shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing up here boy? Why are you sneaking around?” His voice was low and menacing and the same alcohol smell radiated off of him along with a musky odor I could not place.
I could not speak. My heart had stopped and all the blood had drained from my face. He did not let go, but bent down so his face was in mine.
“Answer me when I ask you a question boy.”
“Um, I’m sorry Coach, sir. I was just using the restroom. I couldn’t hold it.”
He did not say anything and he did not let go of me for a long time, but just breathed into my face like a man who had just run a race. Their bedroom door was closed now.
“Alright,” he said. “Go on back to bed and no more up and down. There’s a bathroom off the kitchen.”
He let go and I slipped past him quickly, fighting back tears as my heart pounded hard in my chest. When I made it back down to my sleeping bag, I zipped it up all the way and curled up in a ball. I cried softly into the scratchy pillow and wished I could call my mom. It would be easy to go up into the kitchen and call her from the phone there but I knew if I did then I would disgrace myself and never get invited to another sleepover ever again. This debate raged on for at least another hour as I tossed and turned. At some point I must have fallen asleep because my thoughts became more abstract and circular. I was being chased by a hairy, naked man with the head of a slobbering boar and then I was falling and then I was lying on a picnic blanket under a tree with my head in my mom’s lap, but she didn’t smell like my mom, she smelled like coconut.
It felt like minutes later that I woke up, but the den was full of sunlight and I could smell bacon frying. There were only empty cocoons where my friends had been sleeping and I heard them shouting outside on the trampoline.
Up in the kitchen, Mrs. Johansson was at the stove turning the bacon with a fork. She turned to face me when she heard me on the steps. I looked down at the floor.
“Well good morning sleepy head, you hungry? The boys are outside playing. If you want to join them, I’ll call you in when it’s ready.”
I did join the boys and as I jumped in the cool morning air with the sun on my face I felt happy, like a survivor, like a big kid, like a big kid who could at least fake being a man until I figured the rest out.