Jake hated every single one of his mother’s boyfriends. She had dated many dickwads in the past, but Hank Kearney had positively taken the cake as the worst one yet. It was no contest. Jake liked nothing about that douchebag.
Hank had suddenly appeared in the cramped kitchen of their mobile home one morning. At least, that’s how Jake always remembered it. It was like a fucking nightmare. He had walked out of his bedroom to take a piss when he saw the fat ass with the round pink face and receding hairline sitting at the table, looking through the sports page and occasionally sipping from a big ceramic mug of hot coffee that Momma had just poured for him. When Hank noticed Jake standing there in the doorway in T-shirt and basketball shorts, he raised the mug to him and smiled, briefly showing off a row of crooked and nicotine yellow teeth. Hey! How ya doing, buddy?
He never left after that morning. Jake came to accept Hank the way he accepted the crappy shower or the ants that got in the trailer during the hot months of the summer. Actually, he thought of Hank more like a giant cockroach. Something that needed to be squashed.
“He really wants to get to know you better,” Momma had told him over a microwaved dinner of macaroni and cheese one cold night while Hank was still at work down at the bowling alley. “Sometimes you have to give people a chance.”
“Yeah, just like the last three drunk assholes you’ve dated?”
Momma was visibly hurt by the remark. “That’s enough. Don’t talk like that.”
But that was the truth as much as Momma didn’t want to face it. Hank was a drunk…albeit a bit more of a functioning one than Dan and Mike had ever been. Momma would occasionally bring guys home from the bar where she worked the way other people would take in stray dogs from the pound. Hank was like some hideous science experiment. Tall, smelling of onions, pushing three hundred pounds. He always looked unshaven and had dirt under his nails. When Hank had been drinking a lot, his words slurred together in this annoying way that pissed Jake off.
Thank God for the bike! A rusted Schwinn that was still reliable despite the chain that always came loose. Jake rode all over town during that hazy green summer. He went by the red-brick high school where he would be a junior in the fall, those one-story ranch houses like life-size Monopoly pieces set back on manicured lawns, past the 7-Eleven, a few gas stations, and the ice plant out by the bypass.
He enjoyed the hot wind on his face, hair swept back, the idea that he could feel the blood flowing through his pumping legs as he gained more speed. Sometimes he thought the bike would lift right off the road. In those moments, it felt like he was flying.
It was Brian who told him about CANDYMAN.
This was sometime in mid-June. School out for the last several weeks. They had been playing basketball in the court behind Brian’s apartment building over on Woodward Avenue.
The blazing high noon sun had put a weird glaze on everything and the asphalt seemed soft under their sneakers. No need to keep score. They never did when they played against each other. Agile on their feet, sweat trailing in beads down their faces, the good natural feel of the basketball in their hands as they ran up and down the blacktop. The sky was a deep cerulean blue above the power lines.
“Wanna go to Vic’s place?” asked Brian when they had finally exhausted the game and were sitting against the cool metal of the dumpster.
“Who’s Vic?” Jake and Brian had a lot of the same friends, knew most of them since kindergarten or third grade, but he had never had heard of Vic in his life. He brushed the wet hair out of his eyes with his hand. The basketball in his lap was like a precious treasure.
Brian had the pinched look of a beady-eyed badger. “Vic Slade. Shit. That’s right! I forgot. You’ve never hung out with CANDYMAN, have you? He’s a pretty cool guy. Never met anyone like him in my life. For real! You would like him, too.”
“Why do you call him CANDYMAN?”
Brian cackled like he had some great big secret. “All of us call him CANDYMAN. He’s got everything if you want it. Pot, pills, beer. He gives that shit away like candy, dude. That’s why he’s CANDYMAN. He even has a pool table. He’s great, lives over on Monument Street. You wanna go?”
Jake didn’t have to think about it for more than a millisecond. Not much to do if he went home now. Listen to Hank stumble around the trailer, wasted, yelling at the baseball game on the television. Try to sleep. Beat off. “Yeah, let’s go.”
See a bungalow house bone-white, dark blue shutters, sitting on an expanse of emerald green lawn. Nothing at all remarkable about it, blending in with the other homes on this modest nondescript suburban street. A sprinkler was running – tik, tik, tik – and Jake felt the light cool spray of water against his legs as he came up the front walk with Brian.
This was where CANDYMAN lived. Brian was all excited about it. Jake felt like he was about to meet someone famous, like a Hollywood movie star or a football player.
The garage door was opened like a large gaping mouth. A well-maintained Ford Econoline van was parked inside. There was a youngish, solidly-built man (“That’s him!” Brian exclaimed, pointing straight ahead) working on the engine, pulling out parts and wires like intestines and placing them gently on a white towel on the cement floor. He wore a striped Polo T-shirt, oil spattered blue jeans, chunky workmen’s boots. There were two other boys here that Jake remembered from school. They were bare chested, sitting on vinyl beach chairs, guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbon, and laughing like a couple of mental patients in the psych ward. Though he couldn’t articulate it, Jake felt like he was poised on the edge of something.
“Hey, Brian!” One of the boys was waving to them. “What’s up, man?”
Brian and Jake went over. CANDYMAN glanced up from the bowels of the van, watching them cut across the neat front lawn. Slate grey eyes. Dark brown hair beginning to thin. Sharp features like an inquisitive rabbit. Jake guessed CANDYMAN’s age around thirty or thirty-five, younger than his mother or his dickhead father who ran out on them a couple years ago. CANDYMAN acknowledged Jake with a nod before going back to work on the engine.
Brian gave high-fives to the two boys. The taller one – long blondish hair, a spattering of acne around the mouth – regarded Jake like he had stumbled into some secret world. Maybe he had. “What’s up, man? It’s Jake, right?”
“I’ve seen you around school a few times.”
That kind of surprised Jake. Although he had some friends – even a good friend like Brian Mosley – he still thought of himself as quasi-invisible at school. He didn’t bother anyone, and they didn’t bother him…for the most part. He was content to keep drifting along in these calm waters of anonymity until graduation.
“Vic!” shouted Brian. “Come here. I want you to meet somebody.”
Jake watched. He felt a little nervous, surprisingly tense.
CANDYMAN wiped his hands on a ball of waste as he came over to them. The monotonous ticking of the water sprinkler seemed to have got louder in the last few minutes, the way the sound on the T.V. steadily increases when you fuck around with the volume on the remote control. CANDYMAN gave Jake a smile like a knife slash as he stuffed the ball of waste into his back pocket.
“Vic, this is Jake,” said Brian. He put a tan skinny arm around his friend’s neck. “Thought I would bring him around and introduce him to the gang. I told him all about you.”
CANDYMAN held out a work-grimed hand. Jake shook it. The grip was firm, cool. Words forever ringing in his mind. Hi, Jake. I always like to meet a new friend.
Much later he would often remember a story that Momma had read to him.
Memory like slowly dissipating fog on a beach. This was back when he was little, five or six, and scared of the dark. He was especially terrified of his closet. The monsters in there always came out in the dark.
Momma was reading to him from a big book with lots of (scary) pictures. One story before he had to go to sleep. Their nightly tradition. He was curled next to her in bed, listening, with his stuffed rabbit pressed closed to his heart.
Momma was warm. Smelt of flowers and shampoo. She read aloud from The Pied Piper of Hamelin, him following the words on the pages with her fingertip. It was about this strange man – wild eyes, flowing cape, a face resembling a mischievous elf – who led all these little kids away from their mommies and daddies by playing a magic pipe. The kids never came back to their homes ever again. That story frightened him, but he was brave while he listened to Momma.
He had a bad dream that night. He woke up screaming and crying.
Momma would come in like she always did. Holding him close, kissing the top of his forehead. She would stay until he fell back asleep again.
A nasty dream. Only a nasty bad dream. Shhhh…shhhh…
It was the summer Momma was scared that he would vanish just like the other boys in the area. Her warnings were like dire prophecy. You’re a smart kid. Don’t stop and talk to anyone you don’t know. Don’t accept a ride from a stranger. Don’t be too trusting of certain folks.
Jake had heard the stories. It had started the previous fall. Boys much like him who had vanished from mall parking lots and skateparks over a several-month span. At least six so far. Never to be seen again. Their pictures on the six o’clock news and in the papers.
Police had set up a special tipline. The media would come up with a phrase, a simple moniker that linked them: LOST BOYS.
Were they victims of a (sex) crime? Runaways? Authorities wouldn’t speculate.
There was one night Jake would never forget. He and Momma in the kitchen after dinner. Heavy rain drumming on the tin roof the trailer. Hank cracking another beer in the living room. A football game droning loudly from the television.
Jake was tying up the fat plastic trash bag to take outside to the dumpster.
Momma ran her long slender fingers through his light brown hair, whispering in a soft-sad way. Please don’t ever disappear on me.
The hard snap and flicker of billiard balls. A cacophony of gunshots, police sirens.
Brian’s hyena-like cackle as the ball rolled easily across the baize and into the side pocket, cinching the game. He raised the cue stick high above his head like a warrior who has slayed his enemies on the battlefield. “Fuck yeah! Game is mine, son! Wanna go again?”
Jake was relieved that it was all over. He had never really got the hang of pool. Something to do with the positioning of your feet and keeping your focus and lining up a perfect shot that never really clicked for him. “I’m good. Eddie, he’s all yours.”
Eddie was sitting on the musty sofa playing Grand Theft Auto, a cigarette clamped between his teeth like a gangster in an old black and white movie. He was running over prostitutes in a van.
Jake had never seen him until he began hanging out here. Eddie was nineteen, had gone to school over in Warwick, but had dropped out his junior year. He didn’t live at home anymore. Spent a lot of time hitchhiking around and couch surfing at the apartments of friends, or so he had told them as they passed a joint around one afternoon. He paused the game, stood up to his full lanky height, stretched, and came over to the pool table. Jake handed the cue stick to him with relief.
Jake went over and sat on the La-Z-Boy, taking it all in once more like he was in some fantastic place. Actually, he was. A fantastic, secret-kid place!
CANDYMAN’s finished basement was awesome. They called it the man cave. He had a big Panasonic T.V., tons of video games, a fucking mini fridge filled with gleaming glass bottles of Corona and Heineken. The place always had sodas and food if you got the munchies. CANDYMAN didn’t care if you smoked or drank. CANDYMAN even let guys crash here sometimes if they got too wasted or needed a place to stay for a few days. Jake had been coming over for the last two weeks and was usually one of the last to leave for the night. Brian was right. This guy wasn’t like any grownup Jake had ever met in his life. CANDYMAN (it was getting to be impossible to refer to him as Vic) seemed to have his shit together more than most people, certainly more than his Momma or Hank did. Lately, Jake had started to have fantasies of never going home or to school again when he was here. It would be like some kind of endless vacation or summertime forever.
Tommy and Billy had taken up Eddie’s massacre. One would play for a while before surrendering the controller. Jake watched them mow down pedestrians and blow-up buildings with a cool detachment.
Engrossed in all this animated bloodshed, he didn’t see CANDYMAN until he sat down on the couch next to him. Smelt that familiar musky scent. He snapped the tab off an orange soda can. For someone who seemed to have a near endless supply of beer in his fridge, Jake had never actually seen CANDYMAN drink. Not even one beer. The other guys told Jake that he didn’t like alcohol that much. He got it all for them.
“How’s it going, Jake?”
“Not much of a pool player, are you?”
“Yeah. Not really.”
“I’m not much of one, myself. How’s your summer been so far?”
“Okay. I mean a lot better since coming here.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
Jake went back to watching the television. CANDYMAN sipped his soda. Tommy and Billy, laying on beanbags with their long boys’ legs stretched out in front of them, were transfixed by the police shootout. Another loud crack of billiard balls rebounded against the wood-paneled walls of the basement. Eddie’s booming voice above all the gunfire and explosions. He scored four points on that last sink. Brian told him to piss off and go to Hell as he lit a joint.
“You’re not like the others,” said CANDYMAN.
Jake looked at him, eyes narrowing in confusion. “What?”
“It’s not a bad thing. I’ve noticed it for a while. You’re just different than a lot of the guys who come around here. Special. I could tell that about you right away.”
That boy has no discipline…All he does is just lay around here all day or hang around with those goddamn shit heel kids…He’s old enough to get some kind of job.
Hank and Momma had these fights a lot during that endless summer. Jake could hear their rising, angry voices through the thin walls in his room. Most of the time, he would clamp a pillow over his head and pray to God that Hank would drop dead of a heart attack or brain aneurysm.
Sometimes those fights would break off like tributaries. They weren’t always arguing about him. Often it was money. Shouts, the sound of glass breaking. The hard slam of the front door like something final. Hank’s rusted truck backing out of the driveway, tires crunching on the gravel.
He saw the aftermath of one fight. Momma in the bathroom, staring at her reflection in the mirror above the sink. Harsh fluorescent light making her face look bled out, sickly. T-shirt ripped. Her lower lip was fat and puffy. She pressed a damp wash cloth to that tender spot on her mouth.
“It’s nothing,” she told him. “Don’t make such a big deal about it.”
He could no longer stand to be at home. The trailer was tainted, a place that seemed radioactive.
Afternoons spent walking up around Beavertail State Park. Any chance to get away. Trying not to thinking about anything. Jake was picturing his mind like a giant classroom blackboard. Momma, Hank, his nonexistent father. In his mind, he took an eraser and obliterated all those things he didn’t want to dwell on or remember in long arching swipes.
It was nice out here, despite all the tourists who flooded the place every summer. Beavertail State Park. Screaming little kids running in groups, playing tag. Expensive looking cars lined up like toys on asphalt parking lots. Wooden chip trails leading into deciduous woods. Picnic tables on grassy knolls. A cement structure looking forlorn and a little creepy with obscene graffiti spray painted on the metal doors. A wooden arrow-shaped sign outside that cement cigar box read RESTROOMS. Young brown-tanned mothers sat on metal benches, laughing, some talking on cellphones, chubby babies napping in strollers. A few old guys in Navy baseball caps, seeking relief from the blazing sun, gathered underneath the pavilion to have lunch and recall those long ago faces of their buddies that they had last seen in some Vietnam jungle. Jake would walk past all of these people as if he were a ghost. They paid him no attention at all.
Now it is a day in the middle of July. Glaring hot sun baking the macadam. The humidity like a woolen blanket, stifling. He walked down suburban streets, just passed a sign reading BEAVERTAIL STARE PARK 1 MILE AHEAD. It was too hot for the bike this afternoon. He had his shirt off so he wouldn’t sweat it up too badly. Face set, eyes downcast.
A van approached, slowing. The engine practically silent. It was CANDYMAN’S light blue Ford Econoline. He recognized it instantly. Jake watched as the driver’s side window rolled down. A familiar face. Eyes shining like dimes. “Pretty hot day to be out walking, buddy.”
“It’s not too bad.”
“Come on. Get in. You’re going to fry out here.”
The van slowed to a stop. Idling. CANDYMAN smiled at him.
Jake went around to the passenger side. Opened the creaking van door. Cicadas buzzing out of the trees, a thrumming noise that seemed to fill the world.
The van continued on down the street. CANDYMAN behind the wheel, watching the road unspool like a long black tongue. He wore his gray mechanics coveralls. CANDYMAN was a lineman for Power & Light. He wasn’t CANDYMAN to adults. Not when he was at work. He was only Vic. Hardworking, respectable, well-liked Vic Slade. That was his secret identity, like the comic book/movie superheroes Jake liked to read about.
It smelt strongly of oil and coconut air freshener in the van. Seats covered in a terrycloth so the leather wouldn’t get too hot. A miniature Jesus hung from the rear-view mirror on a plastic chain. Jake quickly glanced at the cargo in the back. A toolbox. Spare tire. Paint cans. A tangle of wires in cardboard boxes. A cast-off mattress looking out of place amongst everything else.
“You sleep back there?” asked Jake.
“Oh, the mattress? Yeah. Sometimes. The company sends us all over the place. Went down to Texas last year, set up repairs right outside of Galveston, after those tornadoes blew through. Huge operation. Power was out for days. That old mattress came in handy. Slept right here in the van. It beat the hell out of a shitty motel.”
“Oh.” Jake went back to watching the road.
“Something bothering you, Jake? You seem a lot quieter than usual.”
Surprisingly, Jake found himself launching into all of it. His runaway father. Momma. Asshole Hank. Everything came out like a damn that had burst. CANDYMAN didn’t say anything. He just listened. He always listened.
They had turned down a side road. Houses stood like enormous sentinels on wide lawns.
“Sometimes adults forget what it was like to be a kid,” said CANDYMAN. “Not an easy time. I think they get so far away from it that they can’t even imagine what it’s like anymore.” He paused for a moment. “However, some people are just dickheads.”
“How would you like to do a little work for me?” asked CANDYMAN. “I have a few jobs on the side. Painting, little landscape projects. Some of the other boys help me out, too. I think you would be perfect. It would get you out of your place for a while. I’ll pay you.”
“Yeah. I’ll do it.”
The days were the same days, or so it felt like to Jake. Hard to picture it any other way. Riding in CANDYMAN’s van. Brian sitting shotgun, smoking a cigarette. Easiest money you’ll ever make, dude. He’s a good boss.
CANDYMAN stifled a laugh. Don’t believe him, Jake. I’m a tyrant.
Brian threw a crumpled fast-food bag at him. Yeah right.
Work but not working. Too hot. Break time. Lunch. Any excuse.
CANDYMAN bringing him along with Brian – always Brian was around, like a superhero sidekick – to houses or apartments on the other side of town. Gangly boys with deep voices and acne scars coming to the van. Huddled together at the windows, mingling smells of body odor and pot. Sometimes little blue pills in plastic baggies changed hands like a magic trick. Dirty jokes. Laughter. Handshakes. High fives. Promises made to stop by for beer and pool some night soon.
It was like Jake had finally been given acceptance into a secret club. Felt good to be a part of something. He was one of them.
“We could be our own population. Do you guys ever think about that?”
CANDYMAN’s modest bungalow house. Late humid summer night. Moths beating their delicate wings at the screen door. Beer and poker. The three of them – Jake, Brian, and Eddie – sitting around the sticky kitchen table as if listening to the wise prophet or a spiritual leader. Card game long forgotten. They hung on his every word, fascinated.
“Most people only disappoint you. Not a surprise. All of us know that. It can be different. Imagine. It would be our own society. We could make our own rules.”
There were times that Jake would see a different CANDYMAN.
Driving back from getting fast food. It was only the two of them that glaringly bright afternoon. The van stopped at a light. CANDYMAN watched the few stragglers cross the street.
“I hate most people, Jake. You know, I sometimes picture the world as one big throat that I want to strangle. I just want to put my hands around it and squeeze and squeeze. Have you ever seen the life go out of someone’s eyes? No. I know you haven’t. It’s something you don’t forget.”
Jake said nothing. He had watched CANDYMAN’s face burn red. His once bright shining eyes seemed to have transformed into two black holes. His knuckles were white moons gripping the steering wheel.
A car behind them honked its horn. The light had turn green two minutes ago.
They drove on. Silent.
Momma asked questions: “Where do you go? What do you do all day?”
He answered: “Nowhere. Nothing.”
Only time being with CANDYMAN made him slightly uneasy.
Another late night. Watching some (stupid, unfunny) sitcom on T.V. and drinking beer in CANDYMAN’s finished basement. Feeling woozy, a little tired.
Where were the other guys that night? Home? Somewhere here? Passed out?
CANDYMAN’s big (hairy) hand touched his knee. Just briefly. Didn’t go any further. Not towards his dick. As if only reaching out to make sure Jake was really there. Not some mirage.
Remembering what CANDYMAN had said to him at the start of summer: You’re different than a lot of the guys who come around here. Special. I could tell that about you right away.
Not able to sleep. Lying in bed, staring up at the sagging roof of the trailer. Momma and Hank finally asleep in their room. He had tried to block out the sounds of them fucking. Concentrated looking up in the corner of the room, where he could still picture where the water stain was even in the midnight darkness.
Swirling thoughts of CANDYMAN. Of that seemingly insignificant touch of his hand. Glasslike eyes shining bright. That thin knife slash smile.
Could it really be true? Jake had never mentioned it to anyone. Kept it to himself.
Was CANDYMAN a queer? A fag?
And another thought followed that one like a muddy backwash. Was he?
Early August. Summer like some endless dream.
The buzz and vibrating of his cellphone like it were alive. A message from Brian: We need to see you. Meet @ C’s house. Important.
“We” meaning he and CANDYMAN needed to see Jake. They operated as a single entity.
Biking over to CANDYMAN’s white bungalow on Monument Street in that dead heat. Red maples. Elm trees. Shadows lengthening on sidewalks. The sun a burning white disc in the sky. Those words echoing in his brain like some sort of omen.
Meet @ C’s house. Important.
There was the house that Jake often thought of as his house. Fish belly white. Familiar dark blue shutters. He dumped the bike on the lawn. The front door opened even before he could knock.
Brian stood there. He seemed lifelessly thin. Dark circles under his eyes as if he hadn’t slept in a long time or he was coming off a bad trip. “Come on. We’re in Vic’s room.”
Vic? How long since he had thought of his real name?!
Jake said nothing. Only followed.
At first, he only thought that Eddie was sleeping. Maybe passed out or overdosed.
Startling to see the stark white nakedness of the boy on the four-post bed. Laying prostrate, as if this weren’t a human body but rather a dummy or mannequin dropped from a great height. Hands and bare feet bound with electrical cord. A pale blue T-shirt was knotted around the neck.
CANDYMAN stood in the corner, smoking a cigarette almost down to the filter. Watching the body. He wasn’t aware at first that Jake was even in the bedroom.
Jake wanting to, but not able to look away from Eddie for a long time. Eyes bulged like saucers. His face looked like it had swelled up like a balloon from the county fair. Lips blue, broken capillaries. There was damp spot on the messed bed. The room smelt of urine.
“Is…is he dead?” Jake asked in the hot silence.
“Yes,” said CANDYMAN. “He took a lot longer than the others.”
“Fifteen minutes,” said Brian. “I timed this one.”
Jake felt his heart tighten as if in a vice. This sudden knowledge like being struck with an aluminum baseball bat. Those other (missing) boys. Momma’s warnings to never disappear.
“How long have you been doing this?”
“You won’t tell,” said Brain, ignoring the question. “We’ve never told on each other before. That’s why I started bringing you around here. Can you keep a secret, Jake?”
His feet felt weighted to the floor. Sweat trickled down his neck. CANDYMAN put the cigarette out on the ashtray on the end table beside the bed and came over to him.
“I said before that you weren’t like the others.” CANDYMAN put a hand on his shoulder. Squeezed. “There is something inside you, Jake. Something not a lot of people possess but are too afraid to use to its full potential. A burning, raging fire. Remember when I was said we could be our own society, make our own rules? We are doing just that.”
Jake couldn’t say anything. Frightened and awed by the (CANDY) man in front of him. Godlike. He could have run in that moment. Not so shell-shocked that he couldn’t have bolted out of the house and run for help. He waited for his heartbeat to slow to its normal rhythm once more.
“What are you going to do with him?”
That blue Ford Econoline van trundled along the road. Somewhere out past the ice plant. Down by the canal. The last of the day’s light dipping behind the trees.
They made a varied and strange group.
Vic Slade a.k.a. CANDYMAN once more at the wheel. The red and green lights from the dashboard playing across his heavy, slightly sagging jowls. Brian was sleeping in the passenger seat. Exhausted. Hair in a helmet shape around his face. He said he would get up once they parked.
Jake in the back, sitting on that old stained mattress. CANDYMAN had his window down so he could smoke another cigarette.
The smell of midway sawdust and saltwater wafted in on the August night air.
Jake kept looking at the oversized steamer trunk. Thick wood and black vinyl veneer. Silver brass padlock. He wondered where the dump site would be. CANDYMAN had told him, but it was all jumbled up in his head now. He had forgotten.
Would they toss it off the bridge or down some grassy embankment? How long until someone came across the trunk? Had the others been disposed of in this way?
He didn’t ask any of those questions. This would be how he remembered that summer for years afterward. Heat like a pall all around them. Driving in the Ford Econoline. Silence. Heading out of a familiar past and into some unknown future.