Portrait of a Young Man in Texas

by Will Finlayson

Boyhood

We were narrow-eyed wonders. We were cops and we were robbers. We were khaki shorts, bowl cuts, ascots stained with sap. We were collectors of birthdays and rusty bottle caps. We compared the size of our pocket knives and raced each other to every tree. We didn’t care for sunsets because we knew there would be many more.

We drank the rivers and punched the waterfalls. We threw rocks at each other’s heads and tore off our shirts to smother the blood. We hurt each other with words we couldn’t spell and described our dreams with sound effects. We were scratched, bruised, and broken boys.

We were babies to our mothers and brothers to our sisters and the future to our fathers. We laughed at the weak and looked too long at the unfortunate. We were all stupid smiles with secrets that everyone knew.

We were boys without weight between our legs. We pissed on trees and rocks and logs and fires and took shits in places and in ways that made us blush. We danced naked when the boring ones slept and mooned the midnight world. We were shoulder-punchers, giggle-bursters, boner-hiders—brothers.

 

Love

My legs were soaked with river water as I sat in the small seat in the front of the kayak. I had caught a small turtle earlier which I held between my legs as I looked up at the bridge. Cara was standing up in the back of the kayak. I thought about how I still hadn’t kissed her yet.

“Come on,” she said. “It will be fun.”

“Seriously?”

“Come on, Will, you’re such a wuss.”

I looked back and saw her standing in only her bathing suit as she tied her light brown hair back into a bun. She looked down at me and pouted her lips in an exaggerated frown before jumping out of the kayak and into the water. I watched as she turned around and swam like a frog towards the shore. Her small head bobbed in the murky water as she swam leaving a soft ripple in her wake. Finally she ascended out of the river and onto the muddy slope of land where the base of the bridge met the water. She signaled at me with both her arms flailing in the air. I responded with a curt wave of the hand.

A minute later she was walking along the trail on the side of the bridge. She made her way to the center, where I waited patiently beneath, and climbed delicately over the railing. From the way she stood, bow-legged and trembling, her teeth clenched, I knew that she was nervous. But I wasn’t watching her any more. Passing joggers and dog-walkers, punk-heads and businessman, stopped at the railing to watch, wondering what kind of trouble a 15-year-old girl in a bathing suit intended to cause on a bridge. Some laughed and shook their heads while others cheered her on. Some even waved down at me, yelling to make sure and catch her. I just smiled and waited, sitting awkwardly in my small seat in the bright orange kayak with a turtle sunbathing on my soaked legs. But I couldn’t look away from her. I noticed how long and thin her legs were, how her torso was so skinny. Just like a frog, I thought. How strange.

 

She jumped off the bridge just as the turtle on my leg skirted out of the kayak and into the water.

 

 Worship

I decided to start swearing when I was in high school. It was a deliberate decision. It was an easy sin—no lighter or companion necessary. On the balcony at night, I would whisper the swears to God like prayers. I would load the syllables like shotgun shells and weigh every sound on my tongue, listening intently as the metal slugs would shoot from my lips and lodge themselves in the sky next to the stars. It was worship.

Sometimes I would swear just to taste the words and to feel them crawl out of my throat and scrape through my teeth. I would practice in the shower and whisper so low that the water would carry away the hard sounds. Sometimes I would swear at myself and let the words trail across my skin with the dirt and spin down the drain.

One time the plumbing got backed up and flooded the bathtub. My father had to unclog the shower drain with a long spindly pipe like a spear that sputtered as he stabbed it into the sewage. I watched him pull out clumps of hair and chunks of soap, batches of bobbie pins and ear cleaners, gobs of “damn” and clusters of “shit” and lumps of lust for Emily in second hour. He dredged out heaps of hateful thoughts for him and mother and pried out memories of women draped in lingerie and scraped out clots of prayers never offered and untangled knots of fights I had started. I pulled my shirt over my nose and felt tears well up in my eyes.

Finally my father scraped the mess into a garbage bag and drained the dirty water. “What a mess,” he said with a laugh, and was done with it.

  

Sex

I still remember the first time I saw a Texas barbecue pit. It was a stone semi-circle with a wood fire in the center and a grate resting just above it, covered in heaps of meat. I couldn’t help but stare, unbelieving, at the mountain of roasting flesh. A new kind of hunger woke up inside of me. I stood a little taller and gazed a little longer.

“Fall-off-the-bone ribs!” the pit master roared as he sliced through muscle and fat with a long, thin blade. He was an alarmingly large man wearing an apron smeared with black pitch and yellow-green grease. Beads of sweat rolled down his bald head and sizzled when they fell onto the slabs of marbled muscle. I could feel the smoke soaking into my skin as I tried to decide how I felt about tearing meat off of bone with my teeth.

But I didn’t care if it was cooked in sweat or if God disagreed or if I would feel dirty afterward. It tasted good and I felt good. It was a buffet of flesh and blood that made mortality delicious. The smells and sizzling sounds, lips licking, stomachs begging, hearts trembling—the foreplay of the feast. You reason with yourself and tease the moral line. Heart pulsing pounding raging hunger roaring—indulgence.

But it’s easier to see the bones once you’ve eaten the thing. It’s easier to feel guilty when you’re full.

 

Manhood

It was the third Saturday of the January, and my turn to clean the pool. I grabbed the cleaning net and started to skim the surface, collecting clumps of weeds and leaves and the soggy bodies of yellow geckos. When the surface was almost clear, I looked down and saw a dark, black mass churning at the bottom of the deep end. I crouched down by the side of the pool and stared at the swirling ball of muck seething beneath the blue. I looked deep into its blackness, wondering, waiting for it to move, waiting for it to tell me not to disturb it. I waited for a long time, hoping it would leave me alone, leave me to clean the pool quick and go back to playing video games, and to grow up young.

I again picked up the net and gently lowered it down to the bottom of the pool. I prodded the object and it gave way to the net, erupting into a haze of particles and purple chunks all swirling in a thick soup. I crouched down next to the edge of the water, mesmerized. The blackness spread across the water which lapped up against the sides of the pool, licking at my toes. Through the cloud of gore I could make out thin, white bones, a long ear, a paw, some drifting hair. I wondered how it had gotten into the pool in the first place. It must have been running from something, a hawk maybe, and drowned. Or maybe it went for a drink and fell in. I wondered about that as I skimmed its brittle bones and soggy flesh out of the pool, and on the third Saturday of February, I was still wondering about the black mass swirling in the deep end.

 

 

 

 

Will Finlayson is senior at BYU studying English, communications, editing, and creative writing. He is a level 7 Kensai in D&D.