Blip Magazine Archive


Home : Archive : Links

Brett Berk


He used a cherry ChapStick to protect his lips, and some boys said it left a mark down there when he'd finished. Like peeling the scab from a cut, they joked, if you went back enough times, there was the chance you'd stay marked. He'd tried other flavors, but the cherry was the strongest, and it covered up the smell of them which was damp and yeasty and so strong it sometimes overcame being tantalizing.

There were never more than two or three of them in the old locker room and none came every week. Few came without skipping two weeks between. He would take them one at a time on Wednesday afternoons in an inoperative shower stall, the walls of which were brick instead of greasy cinder block like those in the modern addition. It hadn't always been him, but whoever it was, it had always been here. The graffiti attested to it. DICK, it said in big letters on the wall, a penis-shaped arrow pointing down into an open mouth. When he'd first started, they'd called him "Dick," though his real name was Gregor.

Before this, he'd found other ways to make friends. He'd started in sixth grade with packs of gum, the cheap brands in short-lived flavors like orange and watermelon that the better companies stayed away from. After this there was the digital watch that played parts of three songs. Then handheld electronic games. Then toothpicks (cinnamon, mint, anise) flavored by soaking overnight in oil extracts. Later it was pills and pot, but by eighth grade, everyone knew where else to get these and Greg didn't have enough to compete with the dealers

He wasn't scangy. He never wore shorts, like Kevin or some of the other faggy boys for whom the shortest shorts were both a competition sport and an insider's code. He didn't carry his books clutched to his chest, eat lunch with a table full of giggling girls, or wear argyle socks. To get a reputation you had to be outlandish-obvious-and this was something he told himself he was not.

But by spring, the ChapStick started to stain, and though it was Greg's lips that were unnaturally red, people began calling him "Rudolph."

A boy, a regular down in the old locker room, sang as they chose relay teams, "Rudolph the red-nosed fairy." Other boys joined in and the words bounced around the gymnasium like a handball.

The school was on the inland side of a suburb of LA, a bike ride away from where Greg lived. His house was somewhat closer to the ocean, and Christopher Isherwood had once lived in a nearby bungalow up a number of steps and actually overlooking the water. Gregor and his "brother" had been long ago adopted by a woman with strong views about hands-off parenting. It wasn't that she didn't care for the boys, but her house was always peopled with one or another transient friend. There for a week or a month between living arrangements, these men were not incredibly demanding, but they further disassembled the structure of family relations, leaving the boys much to their own accord. It was experimental living. Greg often told people that Agnes was his older sister.

They lived in a geodesic dome made of panes of octagonal glass. Agnes had bought the house cheap from the hippies who'd built it, fleeing, they said, a vision of encroaching development. Rimmed with metal pipes full of saltwater, the glass let light in during the day, and the water was supposed to hold heat during the cold coastal night. Some of the pipes had calcified, the panes cracked. Her houseguests complained the house was often drafty, but it actually worked remarkably well. And there was always the beauty of the glass, cut so that instead of magnifying, it diffracted the sun, casting tiny rainbows on the brush-cut lawn. It meant little privacy, especially at night. But there were no neighbors, which is part of what gave her the prerogative to build a family here in the first place.

Every spring, going back so far he remembered the early ones only from pictures, Greg's mother had a beach party. It was always in a semiprivate section near the end of the beach, an area locked in by cliffs and trees. Because she was unclear about specific birthdays, it was at these affairs that Greg and his brother were offered their annual gifts. Long before she'd bought the glass house, Agnes had mediated between a group of drag queens and childless lesbian couples who wanted their sperm. These men, in their rotating stints as her houseguests, had acted as a kind of serial parent to Greg and his brother (their biological parents having been lost in the late sixties); a second mother, they were fond of calling themselves both individually and collectively. They would all come out for the picnics and they smiled on Greg and his brother with affinity. Even the ones who objected to children gushed comments to Agnes about nurturing and community.

Either because they identified with this notion of "family" or in some underhanded way wanted to comment on or counteract it, these men gave Greg two kinds of inappropriate presents. The first consisted of things like pornographic male pinup calendars or poppers inhalers. The other kind of gift was somewhat more insidious: bowie knives with self-locking features, books about Corvettes, or even things that would embarrass normal boys two years younger, like plastic swords and shields, or army men.

The day he was to turn fourteen, Greg sat with his brother on the sand in the organdy sun and got tan.

"Hey, Rudolph." His brother pointed at a shadow on the surface of the ocean. He licked his fingers and pinched out the end of a joint.

Greg leaned up on his elbow, then laughed at himself for responding. Though he'd told him about the old locker room weeks ago, his brother had heard this new nickname only last night.

He stared where his brother had pointed. There was an otter there. "Do you think they made us this way?" When they were alone together, in the silences, this was the question that often ran through Greg's mind.

"You mean with this?" His brother gestured to indicate the whole scene. "None of them grew up in families like this."

Five years back, lying probably in this same spot, Greg and his brother had cut their thumbs with a piece of sea glass and pressed them together swearing away the secrets in their lives.

"Do you think what I'm doing . . . at school? Do you think it could hurt me?"

"Maybe? Yeah." He gave Gregor time to respond and when he didn't, he leaned back and looked away, up at the sun for a long time without shielding his eyes. "But I guess . . . you should be doing what you want. At our age, doing what you want can't be bad."

Sand fleas hatched out of the damp beach around them. They jumped, one at a time, like surprises, from the wet-packed sand toward shore, spreading out as they encountered decaying plants or starfish.

"Are we going to have to move? Get to move?"

Though Agnes had not yet addressed it, Greg had seen a notice in the paper that the property bordering theirs had been sold. He'd saved the clipping and kept it pressed in a Hardy Boys mystery under his bed.

His brother didn't answer.

They each received only one present that day, and Greg's came first. Before he'd touched what was inside, he thought the gift was something waterproof, made of colored vinyl. When he picked it up, he realized it was only wrapped in tight plastic, and when this was off, he discovered the shirt inside was damp on the sleeves and along the ribs.

There was an iron-on decal of Farrah Fawcett Majors covering the front, and on this, water beaded. Having been in the box and in the shade, the shirt was cooler than his skin. Greg held it to his chest.

"Imagine that," said one man.

The T-shirt was a faded red, almost the pink of a washed-out tie-dye. And though it was not the first time Greg had seen a photo like this, it was the first time he had seen this photo. It was of Farrah wearing a red one-piece, and Greg was drawn at once from her wet, toothy smile to her hands, wrinkled and painted. Her loopy autograph was down in the corner, lending authenticity and her alleged approval to the image.

"It's Farrah," a man said. "She's on TV, but that's her real name."

Once the party caravaned back to the house the boys holed up in their room. The cocktail hour extended through sundown.

Greg's brother shrugged at him. "What are you trying to prove with that?" He placed his palm flat on the front of Greg's shirt. Though it came across like an accusation, Greg knew this was only a direct question. His brother had a complete system of meaning attached to the things he wore on his body: the fur hat, the pants that erred in the size of their flare to a grand degree in both directions.

Greg pulled back. "Who says I'm trying to prove anything?"

His brother slid his bathing suit off and slowly eased into a pair of briefs. "What about when people look at you?"

Their mirror was cheap and it bowed as Greg rubbed a spot out of it. He made fists with his hands and curled his toes in under his feet as he looked in the mirror. He felt he was in possession of the cue that would spring some terrible surprise.

Neither Uncle Max nor Agnes said anything about the shirt when Greg wore it the next morning at breakfast. Max nodded with affinity (I see you like that gift.), his mother, knowingly (This too will pass.). Max coughed his persistent hacking cough and rubbed at swollen glands as he funneled coffee into a thermos for their drive toward LA. Agnes swallowed a couple of pills Greg knew not to be vitamins.

He kept a plaid shirt snapped up high over the tee for the first few hours of the school day. He had seen kids embarrassed over less: wearing blue nail polish, or a halter top, or roller skates, and having nothing to change into. Waiting his turn in the guidance counselor's office, he'd heard kids calling home sick on days like this. He wanted to ensure himself options.

After lunch, he tied the plaid shirt around his waist. Hands in pockets, Greg held tight to his thighs as he walked through the crowds between classes. Though he worked for every step to look normal, he could feel in his movements a deliberate confidence. It was similar to the time he'd marched with his extended family in LA's first Gay Pride parade. A kind of excited power, conditioned by terror.

Seeing only his bobbing head in the distance, two boys called Rudolph in unison and then sang, Won't you guide my sleigh tonight. Each clutched a hand around his crotch and made antlers on top of his head with the other. Some kids nearby shrieked with laughter. How'd your lips get so red? What's that lipstick for kissing?

Greg straightened, his facial muscles tensing painfully as they approached. When they were close enough to scan the image on his shirt, he watched their features carefully and rejoiced in the puzzle of their expressions. She's almost nude, they were thinking. They glanced quickly up to his face. The boys moved their tongues around inside their closed mouths as if checking their teeth for sore spots or bits of food. One stomped his foot. Greg's mind played, in slow motion, the delicate flounce in Uncle Miguel's step when he walked in heels.

Many didn't recognize Farrah that first day. Some were too young to be allowed up late enough to have seen her on Charlie's Angels. Some-because they lived in a valley beyond the city's first ring of mountains-didn't even get that station. But they all noted her framing, her celebrity, and because of the unabashed way she looked back at them, they knew better than to ask.

In gym, Greg left the shirt on and finished that day's run alone in the middle of the pack. The gym teacher required the boys to strip nude and shower after running. They had to stand in line for towels, and their wet fingers bled ink down the roll list as they pointed out their names. Greg hoped the boy Jason (whose last name was before his) would blur for him, and he backed out of the locker room once the steam and the towel snapping started.

He hitchhiked, catching a ride with a skinny truck driver who leered and asked, "You got a girlfriend?" and with a man in a sedan who had Greg search the glove box (full of porno mags) for a gas station receipt. "Expense account," the man said.

At the mall, Greg bought six more Farrah shirts at a free-standing shop near the food court; five new colors and a second in pink. He had the name FARRAH ironed on the back of each shirt, styled in an arc like the letters on a player's jersey.

The shirts smelled of heated plastic, like unloading a dishwasher full of Tupperware. Greg carried them, tied and boxed like dry cleaning, in a shopping bag. He ran into his brother at the chili-fry stand and caught a ride home with his brother's disaffected friend Stanley, a gaunt Chinese boy with grayish skin and spiky hair. Stanley wore an earring and didn't go to school.

Greg's brother intuited what was in the bag. "Pretty brave," he said.

The compliment, however vague, meant a lot to Greg.

"Hope the principal doesn't strip those off you." Stanley had obviously been briefed on the situation (another compliment). Though up to this point, Greg hadn't been concerned about the principal.

He wore the baby blue Farrah shirt the next day and as he parked his bike around the front of the school near the flagpole, he glanced from side to side. He was too late, but out of habit more than hope he scanned the terra-cotta plaza for a few stragglers from fast-food breakfasts or getting high to help shield him a bit as he walked inside.

The principal's office was opposite the front door, and the boys in the morning detention group pressed their faces to the glass and stared as Gregor walked in. Their eyes were full of the kind of dangerous awe that adolescent boys usually reserve for girls who develop early. Strangely, Greg knew this stare. They looked right at his chest, and right at his crotch.

Unable to forge the composure needed to leave, he was reminded of the instant of embarrassment he felt meeting eyes (in the gym showers, in the halls) with boys he'd sucked off in the old locker room: can't wave, can't run.

A secretary stepped out of the office, and Greg turned to look at her. Because the school's doors hung on very strong springs, the door jerked toward closed quickly at first, then extremely slowly.

One of the detention boys cupped his hands around his mouth. He and the two boys nearest him were half standing out of their chairs. "Farrah!" he said. "Hey! Far-rah!" And then, because he couldn't whistle, he howled, "Whoo-whooo." As the door closed, the other boys screamed in hysterics, and just before it clicked shut, another boy started, Far . . . but stopped.

Above the sound of his pulse ringing through his ears, Greg heard the first call, and began walking. And he imagined that the second boy had stopped short when he saw on Greg's back, in big letters, the very name he was prompting to call out. And Gregor imagined the boy's panic at having even said that much.

On his approach home that afternoon, Greg saw a pair of surveyors tracking the far side of the property adjacent to his. More than a quarter mile away, a solitary man walked the road edge. He was pushing a hand truck which clicked (out of sync with Greg's bike's hub) with each rotation. As Greg pedaled closer to where the property bordered his own, he saw two more men pounding stakes into the dirt. They were running blue and yellow wire alongside the edge of his lawn, marking where it met with the overgrowth next door. A man carrying a clipboard walked right behind Greg's house, so close that Greg thought he saw the man drag his finger across the glass.

Agnes was sitting in a square armchair near the middle of the house's main room. She had half a glass of water in her hand, a sure sign she had just taken something. Greg asked who had bought the land. Starting with her index fingers together, she drew in the air a shape like home plate: a triangle with a square beneath.

"Developers?" Greg asked. "Where are they going to build?"

Agnes pointed straight out, a path which, if followed through walls, led right through his bedroom. "The people that are moving out here now." She shook her head. "They don't want to live near any blacks or Mexicans, let alone drag queens."

"Watch it!" Max called from the kitchen.

"It's likely to cause a riot."

Max made the Black Power salute.

"We'll all get taken away from each other. The man with the clipboard? He asked questions. He snooped. Relation of residents?" She imitated the man's smug voice. "Max was here." She indicated the kitchen as if this was the first time she'd remembered he was there. "Jesus. Neighborhood makeup. Property values."

Greg waited for Max's makeup quip, but he didn't make one. He felt a rush of panic. "So we're moving?"

His mother made no response.

Greg passed through the weekend in the way one speeds by a truck on a rain-swept highway, at once reckless and cautious. He had cut out early from school all week, holding on to an unspecified concern about what might happen at the end of the day.

He washed the shirts on Sunday afternoon and hung them in the corners of his yard to dry while he lounged on the back patio. He hadn't eaten all day, and in the hot sun, shirtless, he became intermittently possessed by the feeling that he had gained magic and could move things with his mind. A front-end loader gouged away at the far end of the lot next door. Greg attempted to turn off its droning engine by grinding his teeth together painfully.

"What you doing, little boy?"

Greg had drifted off to sleep and was awakened by one of the construction workers who'd crossed into his yard.

"This is a weird house. Your family build it?"

Greg blinked, his eyes still adjusting to the bright sun.

"Didn't mean to scare you," the man said. His shirt was off and his sinewy body was covered in sweat. He was scrawny, kind of young for the crew, and his pants hung low on his hips.

Greg watched as he left. The drying shirts, scattered around the yard, reminded him of a photo of Antarctica he'd seen in his social studies textbook. The flags of eight or twelve countries ringed the research compound there, a treaty holding them in place. Antarctica is a continent but not its own country, read the text.

His new nickname made its way through the student body. By the middle of the second week, he was called "Farrah" more often than "Rudolph." But there seemed to be a shrinking concentration of people willing to deride him. Greg hoped they wouldn't hurt him. Uncle Salvador said people won't hurt what they won't touch, and though he could almost feel their stares sometimes, so far no one had touched the shirt.

Some students steered clear of him entirely, whispering at his back. Greg was somehow reassured by them. He thought about the boy Kurt Catallo who had so insistently worn a dark suit and straw hat every day that no matter how they protested, people were left with no choice but to accept it.

Around lunchtime, when the crowds were most fierce, Greg hid between stacks in the library. He tore pages from bound periodicals and sailed them behind the shelves. Because it met only twice a week, he flat out skipped gym.

Alongside two vaguely familiar faces, there was a pair of anxious boys waiting when Greg returned to his spot in the old locker room. These new boys straggled on the dark benches, repeatedly rinsing their hands in the enamel sinks, wiping their palms on their pants.

The boys took their turns as if there were something owed them. One at a time they walked into the far corner of the stall. The tiles there smelled like a mixture of mildew and bleach; somewhere between clean and dirty.

Feeling they had no audience to embarrass them, these boys whispered and moaned while it was their turn. In time with one boy's heavy breathing, Greg felt the surprise touch of a hand passing repeatedly through his hair, sometimes catching harshly on knots. Another boy pulled back and leaned down for a deep open-mouth kiss. "Tell anyone and I'll cut you," he whispered as they separated. Those waiting, murmured. And as Greg finished and readied himself to leave, another boy came down and had to be turned away.

Rivalries, even fistfights had started over ownership of less noteworthy items: switchblade combs, novelty pens. But even as her popularity increased, not one other person came to school with a Farrah shirt. There was no club organized to oppose them (unlike the kids who carried gold membership cards in a group encouraging the abolition of disco music). And no doubt by this time the shirts had been offered as birthday gifts from aunts or teenage cousins.

The work in the lots next door became more persistent, sometimes continuing late into the night. Greg and his brother had explored the foundations of the houses being built and noted, slipping on mud and the remains of uprooted trees, how close together they were being dug. Sometimes at night they spoke in loud whispers about the possible dangers and changes that might take place in their lives once the development was complete. What if mean kids move in? People who voted Reagan for Governor?

Greg was kept awake by the light and the noise of the construction team the night they routed out the holes for sink drains. His brother had fallen asleep an hour before. He hugged himself around the shoulders and shook with the kind of anxious thoughts that often led to bad dreams.

He didn't dare wake his brother. Trying to remain in shadows, he snuck into his mother's end of the house. Her sleep was precious and she had never been the type to let the boys crawl in with her after nightmares. Gregor opened the medicine cabinet in her bathroom, holding the door along the edge so as not to smudge the mirror. A tiny light went on illuminating the rows of pill bottles. He searched for a prescription he'd heard his uncles discussing. It was for something else, but it had the side effect of producing a feeling not of euphoria, but of disinterest. Greg had difficulty matching the sound of the drug's name to any of the spellings on the labels. Off the damp enamel lid of the toilet, he emptied and snorted the powder from two blue capsules. He placed the empty casings on his palm, planning to carry them carefully to the kitchen and refill them with some odd powder like cream of tartar. But as he held them, the gelatin wilted and began to dissolve in the sweat on his palm. Soaking in, they left nothing but a slick little stain.

Almost immediately, Greg began to be seized by a tickling feeling that crept up his spine.

The carpeting in his mother's bedroom felt deep under his feet. "I'm radical. Pill-popper," he whispered to himself. He saw endless series of the colored spots that appear when you stop rubbing your eyes. He added a swing to his hips as he came out into the hall and imagined himself strolling through the bright shuddering lights of a disco. "Come on down/To 54," he whispered like he'd heard in a song. He padded around the house, dancing silently, and each time he stopped, he concentrated on the muscles in his back. They felt as if someone were gathering them into slipknots.

At school, a straggler held the door open for Greg the next morning. "Hey, Farrah," he said. The detention group had already been dismissed to first period.

Greg had taken two more pills that morning and their effects strangely relaxed his sense of panic.

"I said, hey."

Greg nodded, Hi. The boy released the door and smoothly offered his hand to shake, catching the door at the end just before it closed. Greg recognized him as a high-on called Martin. He had a gentle smile and a deep slur to his speech that was almost like an accent, though Greg knew he wasn't foreign.

The boy followed Greg inside, and they walked laps silently around the school's halls. It often surprised Greg how few people walked around during classes. There was a camaraderie that developed immediately upon meeting another person, you almost had to smile, you felt like you were getting away with something. Greg turned his head a few times as they circled and the boy Martin always turned at the same time as if their stoned thoughts could read each other. Greg could hear the murmurings of teachers and students behind closed classroom doors and he murmured back, unwittingly imitating their tones and rhythms.

A door latch clicked. Greg whispered quickly, "Careful," and like being awakened by your own sleep-talking voice, he was surprised he'd been the one who'd said it.

They fell asleep head to head between the stacks in the library, their fingers almost touching. Greg woke just before fifth period ended and Martin was gone. There was a piece of paper in his hand, but Greg's thoughts were even fuzzier after his rest, and he found himself unable to investigate it fully. He ran his empty hand down the front of his shirt as he stood, smoothing the spots where, warmed by his sleeping body, the decal had stuck to itself. There seemed to be a cognitive lag between touch and sensation, and Greg marveled at the sense of phantom hands tracing his chest.

He started toward the lunchroom in hope of being first in line to buy snacks and chips, but he quickly lost track of this plan and wandered down the halls holding the old hall pass so loosely that he had to keep stopping to check it was still there.

Greg was lured by the fuzzy mumble of the Drama Club's projection exercises. He leaned against the auditorium door and looked through the thin window, watching the students puff out their chests or hunch their shoulders in response to the teacher's strange hand signals. His feet shuffled around as if he were walking on hot sand. Trying to keep his balance, he righted his knees, only to have them slip and unlock again. The lunch bell rang.

He barely had time to take his first running step. The opening door struck the back of his head just above the divot where the base of his neck met his skull. Before he felt his body being thrown, Greg felt his brain slosh forward. It pressed behind his eyes creating incredible pressure, then snapped back on its tendrils, its fluid mounts shaken and disturbed.

Greg recalled the times he'd been sent flying before: off his bike when a broom handle was thrust in the moving spokes; across his room (over the bed) during some ambitious wrestling with his brother; through a hoop and into the ocean, hurled by the uncles on a long-ago spring picnic.

Besides the sensation of effortless traveling, from this flight he remembered only that his tear ducts went dry.

He landed on his stomach, his eyes level with the dusty bottom shelf of the school's athletic trophy case, the back of which was mirrored. The engravings on the trophies' bases were blurred smooth, and the gold trophies themselves seemed to rotate ghost-like. Greg noted the feet of a crowd gathering behind him. Like a crush before a fight, they pressed together and careened to get a better view.

Someone called out, Haii-yaah, and kicked in the front of the trophy case. Smooth squares of safety glass fell around Greg's sides and back.

Roll him over. Let's see it.

Greg faded conveniently in and out of consciousness. Two boys used marching band flags to roll him on his back and his face banged on the tiles as they prodded. Once on his back, the overhead lighting strained his pupils even through his eyelids, and Greg imagined that the fluorescent bulbs would burn Farrah's image onto his chest the way a photo negative prints when exposed to bursts of light.

Someone ran the helmet end of a long football trophy back and forth across his front, pressing flat the decal on the shirt .

Look at it. Look at her. Sexy. They touched the trophy's tip to different parts of Farrah's body.

He's batting his eyes at us. Flutter, flutter, butterfly.

They worked up the front of the shirt, exposing Greg's stomach and the band of his underpants. They crept the trophy up higher, sweeping the end across his chest, pressing down in places (on his sternum, near his nipple, on the lymph gland under his arm). No one forced the trophy into any place they couldn't see.

The doctor instructed Greg to stay awake and gave him pills to keep him up as well as an injection to dull the pain. By the time the assistant principal had arrived, most of the crowd had dispersed and Greg was left with a concussion and some serious bruising in and around his groin and chest. In the guidance counselor's office, so they told him, he'd been euphoric, wanting to walk on the desktops and insistent on being taken back to the scene to pick up flowers dropped in tribute. On the ride back from the hospital, Greg focused on the hum and clang of the condo construction which seemed to be taking place on every ridge they passed.

It was dusk when they got home. Greg and his brother shared a joint in their room. The house was strangely empty; none of the uncles were around to poke their heads in and check the progress of things. Greg modeled his shirt in front of the mirror as the bright lights of the construction crew threw crazy rainbows through the ceiling. He assumed various poses, pulling the shirt or his underwear tight over his body, studying the effects-the creases, ropy outlines of muscle.

"Do you think?" He exhaled and took another drag on the joint. His jaw ached from the fall. "Did they make us this way?"

His brother lay on the bed, eyes opening and closing, sometimes watching Greg intently. "Didn't you just ask me that?"

Greg didn't answer.

"I heard a joke today." His brother sat up. "A man gets arrested and the arresting officer . . ."

"I think I've heard it."

"Let me finish. The cop reads him his rights. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be held against you. The man blurts out, Farrah Fawcett Majors! Farrah Fawcett Majors!" His brother laughed.

Greg spun around. He pulled Farrah's image wide across his chest. "Do you think she's beautiful?"

His brother gestured at the shirt without looking. "That? Fantastic."

"Think where she could take me." Greg indicated toward something larger, a future. Outside, the frame of the nearest house was being bolted full of wall studs and cross bracing. Greg stared intently at it. Squinting, and holding his finger straight out, he maneuvered about a quarter turn, tracing precisely, as if with an instrument, the narrow arc of his foreseen scope.

His brother kept silent, stuck, as if in a kind of extreme agreement that bordered on panic.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at

Copyright 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.