“It Hatched and It Died” an excerpt from Brand New Berto
“Lean into it,” Amy says. Her breath is hot on my ear. Her boobs press against my back. They are so big. They are Jupiter and Saturn. They are the biggest. Also she is my cousin.
We are both on her bicycle. She pilots and pedals and I am perched on the tip of her banana seat, not knowing where to put my hands, being hurtled to my doom.
I take her advice and lean into it. She bikes us past Ohio corn, through run-down Newtonsville where there are people in their yards, working on their cars, and they stand up straight and stare as we pass but do not wave, and then back out into the wild down hills and under trees. Every bounce and rocky patch we ride over slams the edge of the seat into my nuts and they hurt like I have never known hurt in my life. It’s like there’s an ache deep inside me. It’s like the center of my balls have turned into heavy rocks and the pain radiates out from this granite core. On the other hand, after about sixty seconds of pain and not knowing where my hands go (answer: the oily bar beneath the seat), my balls go tingly and then they go numb, which actually feels kind of neat.
I grin all the way down a particularly steep hill and I wish I was the kind of kid who yelled out loud. At the bottom of the hill the road is surrounded by trees on all sides.
“This is a forest,” I say.
“It’s just trees,” Amy laughs.
We ride through a curve and lean away from it to keep from tipping over. We’re on the same team.
“You’ll like my friends,” she says. “They’re juniors. You’ll have junior friends. Older friends.”
“Will they want to be friends with a freshman?” I ask. “I’m just some new kid.”
“You’re mysterious,” she says. “Mystery is the key, Berto.” Her voice vibrates my eardrum, all the way down to my core.
“The key to what?” I say.
“Exactly,” says Amy.
We ride up a little hill and into a black-topped lot. I lean back as Amy pedals us up the incline and I feel her boobs in my back again. Even if she is my cousin, and even if that’s weird, it’s August on a bike and there are boobs in my back, whosever they are. So maybe I lean into them a little more than I have to.
The lot is mostly empty. The only things there are a little red car, and a bigger, whiter pickup truck, facing each other with the headlights off. Two guys with beer bottles stand between them and hold their hands up in hello. A girl reclines on the hood of the car, smoking a cigarette. She doesn’t look up at all.
“This is Berto,” Amy says, out of breath, “he’s my awesome cousin.”
My butt hurts from the bike seat, like needles and pins. I do a stupid kind of salute, not really on purpose, and try not to walk funny from my numb butt. My balls are just gone. I do not know what became of them.
One of the guys has curly blonde hair and is probably good looking. He says “What’s up” and nods his head to me, then buries his face in my cousin’s neck.
“This is Ethan,” Amy says, laughing and allowing herself to be picked up and snuggled on by this dude.
“Slick,” says the other one, shaking my hand. He’s wearing a creaky leather jacket, but with baggy tan shorts, and he has the hairiest legs I’ve ever seen on a kid. I can’t tell if he’s told me his name or if he’s basically making fun of me. “What is that, short for Roberto?” he says.
I say that it is, but it’s hard not to look at this dude and my cousin kissing each others’ faces.
“Back there is Beth.” Amy says it around giggles as Ethan’s hands move over her ribs. “Beth Jones!” she shouts. I look away from Amy and Ethan, suddenly embarrassed.
Beth Jones lounges on top of the car, one knee up and the other stretched out down the hood. She has red hair to her chin, a denim skirt and white and black striped tights, even in the late summer heat, all the way down to her thick black boots. She smokes a cigarette and the smoke curls straight up toward the sun. Beth Jones looks at me and doesn’t say a word, just appraises my worth, and looks away. I decide she must hate me, and that we will be enemies.
Slick crosses his arms on his chest. His leather jacket creaks. “Amy,” he says, “You’re a dear friend. But are you for real? He’s like nine years old.”
“Dude, shut up,” Amy says, but she still laughs. She’s paying more attention to Ethan now than anything else, and they lean their foreheads together as she says, “I told you, Berto’s rad.”
“What are you rad at, Berto?” Slick says, as casual a throw down as I’ve ever received. But then, I get it — it’s his hair. His hair is kind of long, but it’s parted on the side and gelled down hard and fast with what looks like a hard, shiny paste. Slick.
Ethan and Amy settle into a standing cuddle, his arms around her from behind. Beth Jones blows smoke into the night.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Slick and Beth Jones look at each other and laugh. Slick kicks at something at his feet and I notice a concrete bust of Elvis on the ground. It’s a little bit smaller than Elvis would have been for real. I don’t know if this sort of thing is unusual for Amy and her friends, so I decide not to bring it up.
“He doesn’t know,” Slick says. He smiles with one side of his mouth. His eyes are cool slits. “Truly awesome.”
“What are you into, man?” Ethan says, looking up for a second from my cousin’s bare neck. I guess he’s trying to help, but I’d rather just walk back to the house and leave them to whatever they’ll do.
What can I tell them? I’m into masked Mexican wrestlers. I’m into the little Marys and saints Mama used to have around our Texas house. I’m into running fast and jumping as far as I can, like I’m in a far-jumping league, and am actually the grand champion. I used to be into taking car trips with Papa. Usually when I’m just walking around at a grocery store, I imagine myself with a lightsaber fighting other lightsabers. Lately I’ve been into my cousin’s boobs. I am into many things, but I open my mouth to say I don’t know one more time and Amy speaks up to ruin me.
“You remember those Venus flytraps?” she says. “Like that story you told about the science fair or something, like last Thanksgiving?”
I do remember. It was actually two Christmases past, when Amy and Uncle John and Aunt Lydia came to see us in Texas.
“Yeah, I remember,” I say.
“Berto tells really good stories,” says Amy. “It was like this Venus flytrap, and it ate some other kid’s ant farm.”
“Was it your ant farm?” Slick says.
“No.” I kick at some rocks on the empty blacktop. Why is there an empty paved lot in the middle of the trees, anyway?
“Stories,” says Slick, like the word might be radioactive. “I bet you’re wise beyond your years and shit, man.” He and Beth Jones look at each other and laugh. She blows smoke out of her mouth and away from him. It travels up into the sky and disappears. I watch the smoke instead of these people.
“Oh, he totally is,” Ethan says. Slick was making fun of me, but I don’t think Ethan means to. He turns back to Amy. He’s just trying to close off this particular avenue of my embarrassment, and even if he doesn’t intend it as a kindness, it is. I’m grateful.
Slick drinks from his beer bottle and looks off into the woods. The test before me is finished. I have failed and will have to forage for my own friends, probably the weird kids who sit alone at lunch.
But then — Beth Jones. “Tell us a story, Berto,” she says. She swings her striped legs over the car and hops down. I suddenly see she’s shorter than everyone else, shorter than me, maybe only five feet tall. She stands next to Slick, who hulks over her with his wide-shouldered jacket and his gangly hair and bones, though her stature still seems to be mightier.
I wait for someone to overrule her, maybe merciful Ethan who knows that I’ve already lost. But he just looks at me, lifting his head up from Amy, who looks at me too and winks. What does that mean, that winking? Is she making fun of me? Giving me a clue? Slick looks at me, and Elvis’s painted blue dots that are supposed to be eyes, they look without blinking.
Amy says, “Tell ‘em a good one, Berto.”
I look to Elvis one more time, for inspiration or reprieve. But Papa was a Johnny Cash kind of man, and the King keeps quiet.
“Well I guess there was this creek,” I say. They gather around me in a half-circle, this Beth Jones at the center, still smoking.
“Hold on,” she says. “What’s this thing called?”
“The story.” She seems disgusted at my mistake. “All stories have names.”
Papa never told his stories with names. So I think of what this story is about, or if not what it’s about, at least what it tells.
“It’s called ‘It Hatched and It Died.’”
“Oooh,” Amy says, and Ethan laughs. Slick chews at some skin on the side of his hand.
“Let me start over,” I say. I bounce from foot to foot. This new foe, Beth Jones, has tried to trip me up, but she has saved me instead. I get my bearings, I back up to the start. I hold my hands flat together like I’m about to pray, hold them up to my face, push my index fingers against the bridge of my nose. I breathe in deep and my fingers smell like bike. It’s me and Elvis in the middle of the circle. I wish heard tribal drums or smelled smoke from a fire, but I don’t have any of that.
“You know the Cub Scouts?” My eyes are closed, and if they nod I don’t see it. “I joined the Cub Scouts in third grade. Me and my friend James joined at the same time, because James said we could learn about building fires and stuff, and surviving in the woods. I didn’t really care about building fires, but James was my friend, and I figure sometimes you go along with your friends even if you’re not so sure it’s the right thing to do.”
“Good man,” says Ethan. Amy smiles and gives him a playful kick.
“We went to this monthly den meeting in our school cafeteria before we actually signed up, me and James and like five other kids who weren’t Cub Scouts yet. Everyone was there in uniform, dark blue shirts and shorts, and little patches with a wolf and a bear and a bobcat on them. After you got those three badges you became a Weeblo, and after being a Weeblo I think you got to be in the Boy Scouts, but I never got that far. James got a little farther than me, but that’s not what this story is about.”
I look around the circle and everyone is watching me and listening. The sun is still up but I can tell it wants to start setting. I’m not sure where the day went. We packed our clothes into old dusty dressers Aunt Lydia had stored up in the attic, leaving the drawers open so they would air out a little and our clothes wouldn’t smell old. Maria asked if she could come with me and Amy and Amy said no, but that tomorrow she would spend all day with Maria special, and Mama said she needed Maria’s help to set up our living space in the attic that night anyway. Maria agreed, but she didn’t seem convinced. That’s how Maria is a lot lately. That’s how this circle is too, listening to my story but not so sure where it’s going.
“Anyway, what I remember from this first meeting is that it was the talent show. One of the dens lip-synched to ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ and James whispered to me that that in the real song Bon Jovi yells ‘fucker!’ right after that line in the song, like ‘you give love a bad name – fucker!’ I guess I thought that was really cool at the time.”
My face gets hot, but they laugh a little, even Slick.
“So that’s the night we joined Cub Scouts, me and James. James’s mom was our den mother, so we had our meetings at their house every week and she was in charge of making up stuff for us to do. Like build forts with popsicle sticks or gluing beads to pieces of bark. Her name was Pam, and that’s what she looked like, like a Pam.”
Slick frowns and he says, “My mom’s name is Pam.”
“That’s what I mean,” I say. “Pam looks like a mom. Her hair’s short, she wears like Christmas sweaters, or Mickey Mouse t-shirts.”
“Holy shit,” Slick says, and he doesn’t smile, but his frown softens. “What you just described is my mother.”
“My mom wears Mickey Mouse t-shirts,” says Amy.
“Keep going,” Slick says. He puts one foot up on Elvis’s head. Beth Jones strikes a match, lights another cigarette.
“One day our project was to go down to the creek behind James’s house. It was just a strip of water in a thin line of trees at the edge of his back yard. Pam took us back there with jars to find tadpole eggs that we were gonna collect and take home. Then they would hatch and we’d keep a journal on them, and then we’d have pet frogs. She told us to wear our muddy boots that day. The eggs were all like clustered together in the muddy water and Pam used a stick to break them up and herd one and some water into each of our jars.”
“I do not like where this is going,” Amy says. But she holds both hands up to her mouth, and I bet that’s the way she looks when she watches scary movies, too.
“I took my jar home and it hatched that same night. The little tadpole swam around in the dirty water, it had that long little tail, and I asked Mama — my mom, I mean — what to feed it, but she didn’t know. She said maybe it would eat what was left of its little jelly-egg, which was the only other thing in the jar, really.”
“Gross,” Ethan says.
“But it didn’t. It was dead when I woke up in the morning, just sort of drifting in the water. Everyone’s died like that, even the one that James caught. I don’t think we even talked about it at our next den meeting. So, you know. That’s how I got my Tadpole Badge.”
“You had a Tadpole Badge?” Slick says.
“No,” I say. “That part was a joke. I think I quit Cub Scouts soon after.”
“Pam should have gotten a Jackass Badge,” Slick says. “How many kids were in your troop?”
“Den. Like seven.”
He shakes his head. “Seven dead frogs, man. Damn.” He looks like he means it, and maybe he’s not as bad as I thought.
“‘It Hatched and It Died,’” Amy says.
The others nod. “No offense,” says Ethan, “but that’s a weird story, dude. It’s like it means something, but I don’t know what it means.”
“I liked it,” says Amy.
“Yeah, but you’re weird, too,” says Ethan, and she tickles him, and he kisses her quick.
Beth Jones drops her cigarette on the blacktop and smashes it with her boot even though it’s only half gone, and I wonder if this means that my story was awful. She jumps back up on the hood of the car and reclines against the windshield again. I watch the stripes on her tights. She bends one knee, the one closest to me, and the angle of her legs and the length of her skirt would show more of her thighs I’ve ever seen outside of a bathing suit if not for those tights. But somehow that makes it even better.
She lights another cigarette and continues her quiet hatred of me.
“I don’t know if it’s awesome,” Slick says, “but it ain’t bad.” He picks up Elvis and cradles him under one arm. “Let’s get rid of this thing.”
Ethan manhandles Amy’s bike into the back of the pickup and the two of them get in the front. Beth Jones vaults herself off of the hood of that little red car and opens the driver’s side door.
“Get into my car, nerds,” she says. I guess she means me.
With no option for escape, all I can do is go along for the ride.
It’s dark out here. Beth Jones drives fast and finds the little hills in the road, the right curves, and she doesn’t warn us before hitting those spots that make your tummy feel funny. There are bugs in our way and we splatter straight through them, the summertime night is lousy with them, and sometimes she runs her wipers to clear the windshield. My second night in Ohio is scary and real, and who would have thought it?
Beth Jones sits far back in her driver’s seat and stretches her arms out their full length in order to reach the wheel. The fabric on the ceiling of the car is loose and hangs down so low in places that it rests on top of Slick’s helmet-hair, but he still seems at ease in her passenger seat. Even so, she’s the one in control of the car. He’s the one who has to lean in to say things to her. I can’t hear what they say from the wind blasting in all four windows. Ethan’s tail lights appear sporadically up ahead, but then disappear around a bend.
Finally Beth Jones angles her head backwards and hollers, “Berto, you smoke?”
“Not really,” I say.
“I mean pot,” she says.
“Oh, no,” I say, and what I mean is oh no. I’m not quite sure why I’m so panicked at the thought, but as I realize Slick is holding a lighter to some kind of glass pipe I get really nervous (moreso than previous) and wonder if it’s possible people are allergic to pot, and whether Beth Jones would believe if I said that I was.
“Why not?” she says.
“Oh, you know, just never got into it,” I say.
“You’re gonna be a freshman?” Slick says, a puff of smoke popping out of his mouth.
“Then it’s time to get started,” he says, holding the pipe out for me between the two front seats.
“That’s okay,” I say, pretending to be fascinated by the landscape rushing by outside. “It’s expensive, you know? I can’t really afford to get into that sort of thing.”
Beth Jones and Slick look at each other and laugh.
“We’re not going to charge you dude,” she says. “If you just don’t want to it’s cool.”
“That’s not it,” I say, but I think that might just be it. “I just want my first time to be, you know—”
“Special,” says Slick.
He and Beth Jones crack themselves up as I sink further into the back seat and try to listen to the wind. There are clothes piled on the floor of the car, a red apron with a nametag that reads Beth J., and empty cans of Diet Coke.
“Where are we going,” says Beth Jones, piloting the car, accelerating in speed, crooking one knee up high, and performing an elegant procedure with the lighter and the glass pipe all at once. She is beautiful, even in anger.
“He’s talking us to Joyce’s,” Slick says, unleashing a powerful giggle.
“Cocksucker,” laughs Beth Jones.
“Joyce is a bitch,” Slick says, but the word sounds odd coming from his face. It occurs to me for the first time that he’s trying to impress Beth Jones. He takes the pipe from her and turns around in his seat to face me.
“Leave Joyce alone,” says Beth Jones, but she still laughs.
“That girl’s a cunt,” Slick says, but he’s watching me. He’s smiling sideways again.
“You are disgusting,” laughs Beth Jones.
“You are a turd,” Slick says, smiling, staring at no one but me.
“Joyce,” Slick continues, “is short and round and desperate to be friends with everyone. But like too desperate. Like you can see it in her eyes — she stares too long and she just waits for you to make eye contact.”
I look up into the rearview mirror and see Beth Jones looking back at me.
Slick turns around and faces the front again. “And she never takes off her backpack,” he says.
“Ooh, I know,” says Beth Jones, looking away from me in the mirror. “I hate that.”
“Yeah,” I say. Do I have a backpack? If I do, I will wear it as little as possible. I will go home tonight and throw it in the trash.
For a moment nobody breathes. Then Slick and Beth Jones crack up laughing again. Beth Jones honks her horn three times, and somewhere up ahead, Ethan’s pickup honks three times in return.
On Joyce’s street the houses are right next to each other, brick and rectangular and one story high, and those thick woods are back behind each one. Ethan slows down up ahead of us, and the sun is down by now but nobody has their headlights on. There are trashcans put out at the end of every driveway, and Ethan nudges his truck closer and closer to the two plastic brown ones at the end of Joyce’s driveway. He nudges them with his bumper and they fall over, the lids pop off, and trash spills into the yard: black plastic bags, empty cardboard food boxes, and bunches of wadded toilet paper.
In our car Slick laughs and Beth Jones snorts like she’s amused, but does not technically encourage such behavior. We idle there, but the engines are still running.
“Do it, brother,” says Beth Jones.
“Hmm,” says Slick, holding the stone Elvis in his lap, drumming his fingertips on the head.
“Dude, you cannot chicken out,” says Beth Jones. “You’ve been talking about this all summer.” She turns around in her seat to face me. “Slick here’s been talking a big game for months about how he was going to steal his step-dad’s prized Elvis statue and do something scandalous with it.” She laughs but keeps going. “And now, listen to him.”
“I’m not backing out,” Slick says.
“You are backing out,” says Beth Jones.
“I’m not,” Slick laughs, but he still cradles Elvis to his chest like he’ll never let it go.
Beth Jones’s face softens, she purrs with loving concern. “Aw, Slick,” she says. “Does your pussy hurt? Should I tuck you into your four-poster bed?”
“It’s not late enough,” he says. “We should circle the block.”
“Ethan and Amy are totally waiting on you to do it,” says Beth Jones.
“Ethan and Amy are totally dry humping in his truck,” says Slick.
They start laughing again, and I bet I know what Slick’s feeling. That feeling in your guts that keeps you from just taking that first step of whatever it is you secretly know will be fun. I felt it earlier, telling stories in the empty parking lot. And the way this Beth Jones is leaning close to him, smiling at him, even when she’s making fun of him? That oughtta be me.
“I’ll do it,” I say.
They turn and look.
“What?” says Slick.
“Berto the Beast!” says Beth Jones. “Give it to him dude, get outta the car!”
Slick protests but Beth Jones is pushing him, shoving him with her hands and even both feet, pressing him against the side of his door Slick he opens it and steps outside. She pushes his seat up so I can get out, and I do, and I put my hands on Elvis and it slips right out of Slick’s arms and into my own.
Elvis is heavier than I expected. I almost drop it.
“Do not drop that,” he says.
“Do you need it back?” I say.
“Whatever,” he says. “Don’t get caught.”
The yard seems suddenly so long. But it’s night and quiet, and even though there are streetlights out in the street, it’s somehow darker here than in Uncle John’s yard, with the stars and the space and the corn. I crouch low and clutch Elvis to my chest, cradled in my bare forearms. I don’t look over my shoulder, but I imagine in Ethan’s truck one of two things is happening: either Amy watches me creep across the yard, on a mission, and she thinks: my cousin is totally badass. Or, she and Ethan are making out, all hot and slobber, and they don’t even notice I’m doing anything at all.
The porch is dark, and I think about just putting Elvis in front of the door and running back to the truck. But it seems like I would get extra points the longer I stay up here, and it’s fun being somewhere I’m not supposed to be, and I want to get back in Beth Jones’s car and have Beth Jones be all dude, I can’t believe you buried Elvis up to his eyebrows in that big old flowerpot. So I get down on my knees in front of the big tan flowerpot right next to the front door, yellow and red flower-somethings sprouting out of the dark loose dirt, and I breathe in the air and it’s warm. I blink my eyes extra hard and try to take a mental picture of what’s about to happen.
I dip my fingers into the dirt. It’s hard at first, but loosens right away. I scoop the flowers out like it’s a brain or a heart and Elvis fits right down inside of the pot, nestled on top of the soil. I push him down and his head just sticks out past the lip, like he’s peeking over the side. I pack some soil back around him and put the flowers on top of his head. I don’t quite know why that’s funny, but it makes me so happy to do it.
I creep back over the yard and the windows of Ethan’s truck are fogged up. Beth Jones is sitting in her open driver’s side window watching me over the top of her car, hands up over her head, air-clapping and smiling so wide. Her boobs are smaller than my cousin’s, but I like the way they move. Slick is standing next to the car, nodding his head, but he’s still frowning.
I see trouble erupt on his mug, his smile drops and he stands up straight, and then I notice my shadow ahead of me, black and long against a yellow patch of light on the grass. I look back behind me and there’s a light on in Joyce’s house.
“Shit!” yells Beth Jones, “Slick, dive!”
Slick does, barreling into the back seat, and I think, ohmygod, I’m going to get left behind. But Beth Jones rolls her hands in circles real fast, beckoning me to hurry up into her car, like she’s reeling in a fish. The square of yellow light gets wider and I hear a door swing open behind me, and a voice, a man’s big and mean, not Joyce at all I would bet, and he yells, “Hey!”
I double-time, my knees up high, and I leap across the dry ditch and into Beth Jones’s passenger seat. She’s got the car running in reverse as soon as I’m inside, the door still open, and through some sort of danger-sense Ethan must have figured out the jig was up (or else, you know, he just saw what we saw, the lights going on and a dude opening the door and yelling a thing), because he squeals his truck tires and catapults ahead of us and away into the night, headlights off.
We barrel backwards, our lights off too, Beth Jones piloting the car like a guy in a movie, backing into a driveway to turn around and then rocketing back the way we came.
“Holy shit that was Joyce’s fat dad,” she squeals.
“What did he look like?” I say. My heart is beating — I can feel it — and it’s pushing my blood all over my body.
“Tank top,” she says, “little blue shorts — holy shit they were boxers — he was in his underwear. Ha!”
Beth Jones honks her horn again three times and accelerates, the wind whipping in and around us, Slick in the back seat but leaning forward.
“What?” he says.
“What?” says Beth Jones.
“I can’t hear you,” says Slick. “The wind!”
“Nothing, dude,” she laughs, and I like that.
She pilots the car through the night, weaving through trees and hills and back to where the world is flat. The corn appears, everywhere, around us.
“I can’t go home without Amy,” I say.
“Don’t you worry, tiger,” she says, reaching over with one hand to scratch the back of my head.
Oh, my god.
My shoulders constrict and I tingle everywhere in my skin.
She stops her car at the end of Uncle John’s driveway. Ethan’s truck is already parked there, Ethan and Amy standing outside of it, her bike in the gravel, kissing on each others’ faces again.
We wave and Amy runs over to my side of the car.
“Dude! You’re a superhero!” she says.
“I am,” I say, and what I think I mean is I am?, but it comes out the other way instead.
“Hot!” says Amy. She opens the door and I get out, turning around to look at Beth Jones.
“Nice to meet you Berto,” says Beth Jones. “You’re kind of awesome.”
“Thanks,” I say, which makes her laugh, but I don’t know what else to say.
Slick moves to the front seat and sticks out a hand to shake mine. I take it — it’s sweaty and warm.
Beth Jones and Slick drive away. Ethan leaves after one more kiss for my cousin, and Amy and I walk her bike up the long driveway.
“‘Thanks,’” I say.
“For what?” says Amy.
“No, that’s what I said to that girl.”
She smiles, her teeth white in the light of the moon.
“I’m stupid,” I say, because I’m smiling too.
“She said you were awesome. Besides, you’re playing it cool. Ice cold.”
“Mystery is the key,” I say.
“Exactly,” says Amy.
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