In ten, twenty, thirty years, he will remember that night. The decades will add new realization, perspective, and speculation. But right now he is a 12 year-old boy in a growing Midwestern town, living in a house five miles from the hospital where he was born.
In ten years, that hospital will move south, as all progress will move in this town. The old building will be razed, replaced with a shopping center. Before the end of this decade, with a map of the hospital photocopied from the library, he will determine that the maternity ward where he took his first breath of life was now a store that sold gourmet popcorn. He will tell friends of this coincidence and they will tell other friends, and in time his nickname will be Popcorn.
But now he is a 12 year-old boy named Ben. He has lingering freckles. His eyesight is poor. He wear glasses. His sandy blond hair that eventually will darken and thin is now full and shiny and sweeps clockwise around his head, giving him the appearance of some insect that cannot be classified.
• • •
It's four o'clock on a Thursday in May, and Ben is playing basketball for his team in the after-school intramural league. His last-place team is playing a surprisingly tight game against the first-place team. The game comes down to seconds, and Ben is positioned well and he receives the pass from his buddy Quentin.
Ben does not dribble—which is a good thing because he is a bad dribbler. For the first time in his brief basketball history, instinct merges his growing mind and little body. He pivots and steps gracefully inward. He releases the basketball. The game clock winds down. The buzzer sounds. Players and alternates and scorekeepers and the ref and the janitor in the corner all watch the ball loft and zenith and arc and swish, through the hoop, and the last-place team has beaten the first-place team.
A short silence is followed by a loud cheer and a lesser, muffled groan. Ben is lifted onto the shoulders of his teammates and carried around the gym, which doubles as the cafeteria during lunchtime. The teammates tire. They let him down, not so gently, onto the waxed wood floor. He sits there, thrilled with the events, a bit sore on his bony butt where they dropped him, a minute or two past the time the gym has mostly cleared. When he recoups a bit from the thrill, he realizes that he is staring at the spot in the room where he usually eats lunch.
That evening his buddy Quentin, the Quentin who fed him the game-winning ball, phones. He wants Ben to come over tomorrow after school and spend the night.
Ben gets permission from his mother and relays the good news.
Quentin says, "That's great, little brother. I'll see you tomorrow."
Ben says, "Cool. Bye."
Quentin says, "Okay, bye."
Ben says, "Bye."
Quentin says, "Cool. Okay, little brother. Hang up now."
Ben says, "Okay."
They hang up.
• • •
Quentin had taken to calling him "little brother" when they discovered that they were born on the same day of the same year; without either of them ever confirming the time, Quentin announced that he was born before Ben; therefore, "little brother."
Ben always wanted a real big brother, so the thought of being called somebody's little brother was a good substitute. He wondered if Quentin had a little brother but didn't want to spoil the new title with competition, so instead he asked Quentin if he was born in the same hospital.
Quentin had no idea. "But I'm here," he answered, "so definitely I was born."
• • •
On Friday afternoon, Quentin's mother arrives in her station wagon to collect them from the junior high school. In twenty years, Ben will remember her as a thin, attractive woman with some trouble brewed into the wrinkles around her eyes, but right now she is simply someone else's mom.
She studies Ben in her rearview mirror. She says, "Hello, Ben. My name is Rose."
Ben says, "My name is Ben."
Quentin says, "Mom, he scored the winning basket yesterday. We beat the first-place team. Ben, he scored the basket. We kicked their butts."
"Quentin," she admonishes.
"Tussies," he says. "We kicked their tussies. Anyway, Ben's my little brother. We were born on the same day, same year, same city. Can we get some ice cream?"
Rose drives them not home or to the Baskin-Robbins but to a country club. In ten years, Ben will hate country clubs for no good reason. In twenty years, he will hate country clubs for what he deems their exclusivity and blatant racism. In thirty years, Ben will wish he could afford to join a country club.
A black man with white gloves opens the back door of the station wagon, and Ben releases a yelp of fear; everybody else laughs, and Rose explains that he works here, his name is Sampson, he'll park the station wagon.
Quentin says, "Sampson, this is Ben. He scored the winning basket yesterday. We beat the first-place team. We kicked their tussies."
Sampson bows and says, "That's just cookin’, Mr. Quentin. Now you move your own tussie and go play with the white folk."
Ben watches Rose share a smile with Sampson and then wink at him. In ten years, he will think they had an affair. In twenty years, he will speculate that Quentin had the darkest white skin of any kid in seventh grade. In thirty years, he will think that Rose smiling at Sampson helped her temporarily iron out the wrinkles troubling her eyes.
Up a red-carpeted path and through the door, into the foyer with glimmering chandeliers above and thick shag below, they pass an empty restaurant on the left and a bar on the right studded with pairs of Friday afternoon golfers back from their rounds.
Ben follows Quentin and his mother down a flight of stairs, the three of them silent, and in twenty years that moment will have seemed like a cultish processional, but now Ben is too awed by the strangeness of his new environment. In the carpeted lower level they enter a room with a television set and a couch, and Rose tussles Quentin's hair and smiles at Ben, congratulates him on his winning basket, tells them to eat something, there's the phone, make the call, you're in the Grayson Room, you remember our number?—four, nine—of course you do, you're a smart boy, you and your little brother. And then she is gone.
This is their room for the evening. They sneak out and explore. They spy on the pool cleaner and the tennis pro. They sneak into a golf cart when nobody's looking and would drive it somewhere if only they knew how to start it and how to drive. They return to the Grayson Room, turn on the television, and watch "Lost in Space." Ben doesn't know why they're in the basement of a country club, but he likes "Lost in Space." He wants to be Billy Mumy. Ben has a dog but he really wants a talking robot that's good to him and zaps the bad guys with a thousand volts of electricity.
Quentin calls in their order for hamburgers and fries and sodas and ice cream, and ten seconds after he hangs up the phone the door opens, and Ben thinks the service is way too good, but the man who enters carries no hamburgers. Instead he sits on the couch and pats his thigh, and Quentin walks to him and sits down on the lap of the man who is his father. What Ben now dismisses as Quentin's obedience in ten years will be revised into some hybrid fear and submission, and in twenty years some sort of obedience for the purpose of abuse prevention.
Quentin's father looks like Howard Hughes. The slicked-back hair, the shimmering, shifty eyes, the thin dark moustache, the brooding facial expression. Ben looks away, staring at the television as father and son talk quietly, until his name is called. He walks shyly toward the couch.
The father says, "I understand you are a sports hero, Ben."
Ben says, "I dunno."
The father says, "My name is Ed Regan. Quentin's done nothing but talk about your winning basket. Must've been quite a shot. Congratulations, Ben."
Ben can think of nothing to say, so he says, "Do you have a job?"
Ed Regan looks at him, smiles, laughs smugly. He says, "I own a hardware store. Down in the stockyards. Ed Regan Hardware, but everybody calls it Ed Regan's place. Or Ed Regan's. I been around a while. You know what a hardware store is, Ben?"
Ben says, "Yeah, sorta."
Ed says, "Well, good for you. Let me sorta tell you what you don't know. I call my hardware store a modern museum because when you visit a museum you see a lot of tools everywhere, behind the glass. Tools that ancient people used to build igloos and huts and castles, shit like that."
Quentin and Ben giggle at the sound of "shit like that."
Ed says, "You see tools in a museum. Arrowheads, spears, plow blades, junctions, needles. And the only difference between the museum and Ed Regan's is that all of my shit is for sale, and most of it's not behind any glass, and you don't have to pay any admission fee."
Ben gets this analogy. He likes it. He thinks Quentin's father is cool because he's said this cool thing and said "shit like that."
Ed tickles Quentin off his lap, stands, and says, "Okay, you two studs have a good time down here. Mom and I are just upstairs for a party. We'll go home when we go home. Don't burn the place down."
Hamburgers, fries, sodas. Television. They watch "The Legend of Lizzie Borden," and the movie scares Ben, not so much because Lizzie Borden took the ax and gave her mother forty whacks but because she's played by Elizabeth Montgomery, and in this movie she's not a good witch at all like she is in "Bewitched."
After the movie, Quentin gets a devilish look in his eye and takes Ben to another room, pulls a key from under a lounge chair, and opens a cabinet filled with bottles.
Ben says, "What's that?"
Quentin unscrews a bottle of clear liquid and swigs from it and coughs loudly, then hands the bottle to Ben.
"Try it," he says between coughs. "It's good."
Ben says, "If it's so good, why are you coughing and turning red?"
Quentin says, "This is what adults do. Try it. Puts hair on your chest."
Ben says, "I'm twelve. I'd look really funny with hair on my chest."
Quentin says, "Go ahead."
Ben takes a big, uncalculated swig, and the liquid burns his mouth and his throat and his stomach and he coughs uncontrollably until he turns and vomits into the base of a potted plant.
Quentin looks and says, "Dude, you should chew your French fries better."
They return to the Grayson Room. Ben crawls onto the couch and curls up, not feeling well. They watch TV, some music show with Wolfman Jack, and the tunes take Ben’s mind off his stomach.
Quentin’s mother opens the door, takes them upstairs, through the hallway where the sounds of a dwindling party coming through the closed restaurant door, and out into the fresh chill air that takes the edge from Ben's nausea.
Ed Regan is sitting in the station wagon, gunning the engine, and he squeals the tires as they leave the country club.
It's quiet in the front seat, and in ten years Ben will know the silence was tension, but now he and Quentin are sing-songy with Lizzie Borden taking an ax and giving her mother forty whacks. "When she saw what she had done," they say, "she gave her father forty—”
"Shut the fuck up," snaps Ed Regan.
Rose says, "Ed."
Ed says, "You, too, lady."
Ben has seen the word fuck before but never heard it, and the sound freezes him in the seat of the car.
They're at the Regan's house. Ed puts the gear shift in park and leaves the car, the engine still running.
Rose says, "Not good for gas mileage. Not good for marriage."
They're inside the house now. Rose leads them directly to Quentin's bedroom, tells them to keep the lights off, and shuts the door.
A sliver of moonlight helps Ben's eyes adjust. Two twin beds, a small nightstand between them. A bookcase. A desk with a globe. A box of toys. A beanbag chair.
Ben says, "What now?"
Quentin says, "Now we go to sleep and hope nothing happens." He crawls into his bed.
Ben pushes out of his sneakers and takes the other bed.
Then something happens. It starts as a low, distant disturbance, like an engine struggling to turn over, and then grows closer. It's human. There's a high and a low, aggravation and reason, rage and pleading mercy, a slap of skin and a body bumping against the wall just outside the bedroom, a "spread yer legs, you bitch" and a "sleep it off, Ed, sleep it off."
Ben is fearful. He doesn't have the vocabulary for this experience.
He whispers, "What's happening?"
Quentin says, "Don't worry, little brother. This happens all the time."
In ten, twenty, thirty years, memory of a report of frequency will still not make it okay.
The bedroom door opens and closes quickly. Ben hears a lock snapping shut, a fist banging once and once more on the wood, and then a silence.
He is curled away from the door, toward Quentin in his bed, past Quentin, out the window, down the street and a mile away to his own house where none of this has ever happened.
As she climbs into Ben's bed, the weight of Quentin's mother angles Ben's back against her chest. She puts one arm around his stomach and draws him snugly into her. With her other hand she strokes his hair. Ben, now and in the decades to follow, feels a comfort in the anonymity of this odd shelter passing between the two of them.
From the other bed, Quentin says, "Goodnight, mother."
Rose's hand pauses in mid-stroke on Ben's hair, then completes its path and rests on the pillow. Ben breathes and waits, long past the moment the house falls silent and Quentin's mother falls asleep.