HEY, JOE
by Ben Neihart

[Copyright 1994 by Ben Neihart. Permission granted by International Creative Management, Inc.
This story originally published in "The New Yorker."]


Joe was newly sixteen. He had the rosy aspect, and the swagger, and the skinny arms, and the bad reputation. He was a brooder, a magazine reader, a swaying dancer at mellow, jazzy rap parties. He kept his hair cut short like the other smoked-out newbies at Metaire Park Country Day, and the only shoes he wore were black suède Pumas.

School had just let out for the Labor Day weekend, so Joe was home, changing clothes, in a hurry to be gone before his mother returned from work. He hated to leave her alone on a Friday night, with her books and the cell phone. He hated the actual leave-taking most of all--her quick kiss, the sound of the front door's bolt lock when he closed it behind him. He wished she didn't spend so much time by herself. Why didn't she hang with her old friends? She was always working--at Tulane Medical Center, in the fund-raising office, asking doctors and scientists and presidents of Corporation Whatever for money. "It's gonna suck the life right out of me," she sometimes joked. Joe hated her saying that, because he could see that it was true; in the past year, it seemed, skin and muscle hung more loosely on her frame, and on her face, even though she did exercises in the high-ceilinged ballroom of the New Orleans Athletic Center, downtown.

He wandered about the living room, looking for his glasses, which he wore only at home. They were hidden somewhere beneath the spoils of his mom's latest shopping spree. On the floor were neat piles of new compact disks, hard-cover novels by European women with killer black hairdos, and shoeboxes. Slung over the furniture were silk blouses, palazzo pants in four shades of cream, and bras and panties, all of them with price tags still attached.

"And the value of this showcase is ..." Joe said, and then he hurried down the hall to the bathroom.

In his underwear, he crouched over the bathroom sink. It was his pond, shell-shaped, with separate faucets for hot and cold water. The mirror was steamproof, and flattering; it put your face at a remove, so you weren't right on top of yourself as you did your routine. He squirted some Dial onto a washcloth and worked up a lather to freshen his underarms. He rubbed on some deodorant next, then washed his face and brushed his teeth.

He went into his mom's bedroom. As always, it was neatly set up for when she would come home this evening. The king-size bed was made; a pair of jeans and an immaculate white T-shirt and fresh panties lay on the pillow; the blinds were closed to keep the room cool in the late-summer sunlight. Joe liked the feel of the wood floor under his bare feet. He hopped onto the doctor's-office scale beside the dresser. One hundred twenty pounds. Good, he told himself, lean and portable.

He pulled his mom's door shut on his way to his own bedroom, the smallest room of the house--even smaller than the bathroom. He liked the fact that when he lay down to sleep he could touch the walls on either side of his bed. On weekend mornings, his mom would come into the room to wake him up early so they could spend the morning together in the back yard, sitting on the stone benches in her little rock garden. Between them, they'd drink a pitcher of orange juice, and then Joe would go inside to fix enormous tumblers of iced tea, to clear the thickness from their throats. It was as if they hadn't missed each other in the comings and goings of the week. Long, contented silences; bare feet stretching in the dewy grass; the sun pumping higher into the sky.

Now Joe pulled the front off one of his waist-high Sony speakers, which had been hollowed out to hold his business, the top-shelf weed he imported from Gainesville and sold to his friends. He unrolled a zip-lock freezer bag and took a deep breath of the sweet, fearsome herb. He took a pinch to roll a quick joint. Time to give fashion, he thought. He lit up and collapsed onto his bed. He didn't have to turn on his stereo; music presented itself, as if it had lain dormant in the joint: "Nickel bag, a nickel bag ..."

As he got stoned, he looked at his hands, which were covered with scars. His legs and feet were, too. Each scar was the proof of a mountain-bike tumble, or, in one case, a skid across the coral beach on Fitzroy Island in the Great Barrier Reef, where they had gone last Christmas--Joe, his mom, and his dad, just before he died. They had pushed Daddy's wheelchair to the edge of the Coral Sea. "A sea like green milk," Daddy had said. Joe and his mom hurtled past the breaking waves and dove head on, grasping handfuls of water, racing, floating. When they were finished, they stood beside Daddy, dripping onto his sunburned legs and shoulders. "Oh," he said. "Oh, does that feel good."

Now Joe heard the mail truck stop outside. Friday was a magazine day. He drew himself out of bed, sprayed some Lysol around. He locked up the house and galloped down the driveway. The mailbox was rooted in a pile of pink, round stones. Joe kicked them with his toe. He left the bills and letters in the box and pulled out the new Vogue. He sat down on the slope of curb where his driveway met the street. He'd wait here, he decided, for his ride to the Quarter, where it was his habit to spend Friday nights.

He set the magazine on his bare legs and took stock of the cover. The model was the angel of Joe's life. Her name was Linda, and the cattish regard of her eyes could pull you out of a funk. Joe had been following her career for five years now. In interviews, Linda said that all she had ever wanted to be was a model; she didn't want to be an actress or a singer or a politician, and she didn't want to talk about her charities or whatever, and she talked to her mom every day, and they talked about modelling, because that was Linda's job.

On this cover, Linda sat in the grass; she wore a grape velvet dress that was tight in the bodice. The lightest strands of her hair--the color of Coke in a glass full of melting ice--caught the sun, reminding Joe of the old Dutch society paintings that he had admired in his "World of Art: The Netherlands" class. In those paintings the background was usually dark--an inky, enamel cloud--to set off the lighter wires of the subject's hair and her lucent, honeycomb ruff and her knot of blue pearls.

He looked into Linda's eyes and tried to imitate her smile. He pressed his knees together and palmed the hair on his legs as if smoothing a skirt. Then he noticed the small type near the bottom of the cover: "LINDA EVANGELISTA IN LOVE." He turned to the table of contents. He felt as if the boundary between his fingers and the page were disintegrating. There! He paged through the dark-hued Steven Meisel photographs, and then he stopped. A two-page spread of Linda, wearing a gray cropped sweater. She lay beneath her boyfriend, Kyle, the actor from "Twin Peaks," on a blanket that was suffused with morning sunlight. They were kissing, openmouthed. Her hand--with polished, short nails--gently held the side of his neck.

"Work it, Linda," Joe said happily, and then he lay back on the driveway, holding the magazine to his chest. Music billowed from the house next door, where a former friend of his, Al Theim, lived--a Michael Bolton number, sung as if the singer had taken an Uplift enema. Joe howled along in a fake, sour-bellied voice: "Nothing cures a broken heart like time, love, and tenderness."

It was just like Al Theim to broadcast that kind of shit. Joe couldn't believe he'd once been in love with the guy. They used to spend afternoons together listening to Al's older brother's leftover records from the early eighties: A Flock of Seagulls, Visage, Ultravox. The singers wore makeup, and their hair was swept up in whoopie curls and banglets, but the songs, Joe thought, were some songs. Longing vocals on top of wet, sparkly keyboards: "Ultraviolet, radio lights, telecommunication ..."

One warm October evening, almost four years earlier, Joe's mom had taken Joe and Al to Scream in the Dark, a haunted house set up in two gaping, connected barns, across the Mississippi, in Algiers. Christian kids dressed from top to bottom in hunter-orange directed the parking, took admission money, and made you sign an injury-release form. It felt like summer: it was seventy-four degrees out in the early evening. Joe and Al wore matching, tartan-plaid, flimsy cotton shorts. Even their thin, hairless legs matched.

"What kind of movie is this?" Joe's mom asked, bending over a picnic table to sign her form. Despite Joe's warning, she'd got herself up in a long black dress.

Joe went first, on his hands and knees into the entrance tunnel. Al followed, and then Joe's mom, her knees bound up in the dress. At the end of the tunnel was a ladder. Joe climbed to the second level, a pitch-dark room of indeterminate size, at the far end of which flashed the strobe-lit entrance to the next room. He ventured forward; Al and Mom followed.

"I thought it was going to be a movie," Mom said, and they all laughed. Then, in the dark, someone touched Joe's shoulder.

He shouted, "Al! That's not funny."

"I didn't do anything," Al whispered.

"Someone touched me," Mom said. "Run!"

Joe hurried through the lightlessness, his forearms braced in front of him, into the following room. The floor and walls and ceiling were painted in a black-and-white checkerboard pattern; the strobe light worked its distortions. Joe looked over his shoulder at his mom and laughed. She chanced a smile. The kids in front of him were trying to get to the other side of the room, but they couldn't walk straight. The floor was a sharp pyramid, and you slid backward as you got closer to the peak. Joe looked over his shoulder. The wall behind his mother was moving. There was a man in a checkerboard costume, face painted white, sliding along the wall. He reached out to touch her. Joe took her hand and dragged her into the next room.

Here, in a hyped-up jungle, where the recorded sounds of squawking birds and giggling monkeys played deafeningly, Joe's mom disappeared; she had found the emergency exit and run out. Joe could hear her shouting, "I thought it was a movie!" The floor was made of foam rubber, and covered with rolling, shin-high hurdles. Al took Joe's hand. A gorilla watched them from behind a vivid palm tree, the outline of which was glowing purple.

Al could distinguish the hurdles from the flat stretches, but Joe, at first, couldn't; he perceived, instead, only the fluorescent foliage painted on the foam. Al shouted "Jump!" at each hurdle.

There was nothing like holding Al's warm, sweaty hand. At what looked to be the final hurdle, Joe made himself fall, and pulled Al with him. They wriggled to the wall, Joe's head propped on the foam hurdle, Al's head on Joe's chest. They watched the jumble of flapping shirts and jeans, listened to the screams and laughter.

Al touched Joe's face. "I like you," he said.

"I like you more than that," Joe said.

"How much?"

Their voices stayed in the space between their faces, and Joe found himself close to tears. "More than I like anyone," he said. "All day in school, I think about you." Birds called. The gorilla moved closer, then paused.

"Man, that makes me feel good," Al said. "Say it again."

And then there had been a kiss.

Now, spread out on his driveway, Joe shuddered and shut his eyes tight. The memory had returned with unwelcome carnal immediacy. Al Theim hadn't meant a word he said, Joe thought. Al Theim was just some wack softhearted guy who blew a few sentences out of his mouth. And so were the handful of guys he'd met since. Bullshitters. Maybe I'm not trying hard enough, he thought. Maybe tonight I'll talk to every person I see on Decatur Street, just bust up to them on the sidewalk and introduce myself. He shifted his head on its bed of grass clippings and loose gravel, and then he fell asleep.

He awoke to the whoop of an approaching car horn. He cracked open his eyes and just barely lifted his head to see who it was. A top-dollar car, reflecting sunlight, so he couldn't make out its color. Friends? Family? He dropped his head back and shut his eyes.

The car pulled onto the driveway beside him, purred for a moment, and then went silent.

The door opened, and his mother said, "Wake up, I'm home."

"Hey," Joe said.

She walked around the car, the soles of her low heels scratching the macadam. She came to his spot beside the mailbox and crouched down next to him. "Where you going tonight?"

"Out with friends."

"O.K., I won't ask." She settled onto her knees and smoothed her lemony cotton lap.

"I said out with friends."

"I said I won't ask."

Joe struggled to sit, propping himself up on one elbow. He looked at his mother's shoes, at her hose and her dress, at her knuckly hands and freckled arms—the freckles from long hours of weekend sunbathing. He knew why she liked the heat beating down on her, emptying her thoughts. He appreciated as much as she did the sensation of spilling a glass of iced tea down your throat as you lay, nearly still, on a chair in your own back yard.

Joe could tell that she was tired. It was Friday. It had been a long week. He put his hand on the side of her face. Her skin was soft, and cold from the car's A.C. "Stay with me a minute," he said. "Let's hang out for a minute."

She tilted her head to the side, catching his hand between her cheek and shoulder and holding it there. "You talk," she said. "I'd be so grateful."