“It’s raining dinosaur piss out here,” he said. “Let me in. Your mom went to work, I saw her get on the bus.”
Mom would find out. She’d cry, which would make me cry, but I had to let him in. Lumpy was my only friend. We were only friends at recess even though he lived down the street, and now that Mom had pulled me out of school on doctor’s orders, I felt lucky to be hearing from him at all.
“Open the door, Nicky,” he said. “C’mon, man. Are you putting on makeup or something?”
“Yeah, lipstick.” I laughed, too loudly. Mom always hid the deadbolt key in the same place: beneath a clay pot covering a vent from our building’s laundry room. I grabbed the key with an oven mitt so it wouldn’t leave a rash on my hand. The smell of brass made me gag as I unlocked the door.
Lumpy stomped in and dropped a wet cardboard box on the floor. He made no eye contact as he shook water from his hair like a pug, spraying metallic raindrops all over the walls. Two drops hit my neck and I hunched my shoulders to hide the marks. I was already being a wimp.
“Nicky, dude. You’re wearing purple pajamas,” he said.
“They’re plum,” I said. “I have to wear them as long as I’m, you know, grounded, because all my jeans have copper buttons.” As if it were a common thing, as if he could possibly relate. “It’s just for a while and then I can wear clothes like yours.”
Lumpy was wearing the same unwashed flannel shirt and king-sized jeans he wore to school every day. The rainwater made his body smell stronger than usual, like runny eggs left on a plate all morning. He was also wearing an eye patch—a plastic lens from police sunglasses, pierced by a shoelace. The patch was stuck to his forehead because the shoelace had been tied too tight, too soon. I should have complimented the patch.
“You’re gonna like this,” he said, kicking the wet box. It had nearly come apart in the rain. “My dad is drinking Smirnoff Green Apple and watching Monster's Ball in the bathroom again, so I stole this from his closet for us.” He wiped a glob of wax from his face with a sleeve. “You can go first.”
Up close, the box smelled stronger than Lumpy’s clothes. Like Mom had taught me to do with boxes we hadn’t packed ourselves, I tried to pop open the flaps with the toe of my sneaker.
“Come on,” Lumpy said. “Don’t be a princess.”
The words made my neck burn. At recess, Lumpy said “Don’t be a princess” to kids who screamed when he stabbed them in the butt with a stick. He told me his dad said it when they wrestled and it was funny, wasn’t it? It wasn’t funny at all, but his real question was obvious. “Yeah, that’s funny,” I said, because if I had hugged him and said, “You’re too amazing to feel ashamed of anything,” he would have broken my nose.
“Stop ballet dancing with the box,” he said slowly, “and I’ll show you how to open it.”
He pulled back a flap and removed a plastic container of boot polish. When he unscrewed the cap it smelled unsafe but good, as if the polish were meant to protect people and their things from the world, but could do the opposite if someone handled it wrong. It did have metal—the smell of petroleum is easy to pinpoint, that rock tar funk—but it was mostly wax and lanolin. Natural dyes, too. I never knew polish was fun for Lumpy, but from the way he sniffed it and crunched the container in his hand, maybe it wasn’t.
“Does your dad use it a lot?” I asked.
“Why do you care?” he said.
“Just asking. You showed it to me.”
On the wall above our sofa, there’s a graph that Mom drew on butcher paper. It charts the rising metal levels in my bloodstream, which she carefully measures every night. Lumpy began finger-painting on the graph with the polish, and he turned yesterday’s spike into an adult penis. “That’s awesome,” I said, my stomach roiling as if he’d painted it on my skin. Whenever Mom looked at that graph, her entire jaw line was visible, from her retracted lips all the way back to her earlobes, like a bridle she wore on the inside. At least he wasn’t asking me to join in. I would have drawn a boy who could touch and eat whatever he wanted, who had absorbed so much metal that he could use Earth’s magnetic fields to fly. Lumpy would call it lame and be right.
“Hey, let’s tell jokes,” I said. Maybe he’d quit if I could distract him. “What’s brown and sticky?”
“A stick,” he said. “C’mon Nicky, that joke is from second grade.” He threw the polish to me and laughed when I let it land on the floor. “Do you remember when I told the recess lady that Nicky was short for Nickel Humper and we laughed really hard?”
“My mom will get pissed if we mess up anything in here,” I said. “She has it set up a certain way.”
He looked around my apartment and frowned. “Dude,” he said. “Your mom is gay for blue.”
Blue dowel pins held our table together instead of screws. We had blue bookshelf pegs, blue kitchen chairs. Blue bandages were hiding the metal of every nailhead on the wood floor; blue streamers covered the cracks along the walls, across the saggy ceiling. Before Mom decorated, she asked what my favorite color was. I’d been staring out the window at two kids kicking a bookbag around the sidewalk, no clouds in the sky.
“Actually, the cool thing about all the blue stuff,” I said, clutching my belly, “is when you sit upside-down on the couch for a long time and then jump up, you get the spins and it looks like the room is erupting in laundry detergent.”
Lumpy raised an eyebrow at me. As he should have.
“I wish you had brought sticks over,” I said. “Then we could sword fight.”
“The stuff in my dad’s box is cooler than sticks,” he said. “Look.”
I touched the box with my fingers. No pain, but it felt like wet fruit in my hands. When I peeled back the lid, two dark eyes were staring back at me. A raccoon teddy.
Lumpy scratched a blob of red skin on his throat. “Go ahead, pick it up,” he said.
Touching the raccoon teddy’s fur, I realized it wasn’t a teddy at all but a real raccoon. It was as light as a kickball, but as hard as a kickball made from skulls. Bumpy skulls with lots of gashes. The dirty salt and pepper fur looked like it had been gripped too tightly by sweaty hands during the stuffing process and was now matted in clumps all over the raccoon’s body. Little naked paws were as boney as my own, the fingers so slender at the base, but fattening into cartoon exclamation points as they moved out to the nails. The raccoon’s dark lips were swollen and had been mushed into a smile. I was forcing a smile too. The snout was crooked and had clearly been cut off and glued back on at a bad angle. Fake black eyes smelled like boot polish and Lumpy.
“Cool, huh?” Lumpy said. “My dad made this.”
Maybe if something was sensual but hard to justify, Lumpy’s dad kept it in a box. How Lumpy could be proud of the raccoon, I had no idea. “What did he stuff it with?” I asked.
“Whatever he wants,” Lumpy said. “We don’t have to worry about toxic stuff.”
This was a lie. Once, at the end of a fun recess together, he told me that sometimes during flu season he had to stay at home all day in his underwear. His dad cleaned him with a yellow sponge. It sounded weird, but I felt happy to hear about it because it meant Lumpy trusted me, and that he had body problems just like I did. I said this to Lumpy and he got really quiet. When I asked if he wanted to play superheroes after school he ignored me. He ignored me for the rest of the week.
“Everyone has to worry about toxic stuff,” I said.
He yanked the raccoon out of my hands and held it up in front of his face. “Nicky!” he squealed in a high voice. “I am your mother! Go to your room!”
He wanted me to laugh at my mom so he could forget about his dad. Why did I have to do all the work? “You do a really good impression of a girl,” I said.
“The world is dirty!” he squealed, more insistently this time. “Stay inside or I’ll claw your face off!”
“My mom only does what the doctors tell her to do,” I said. “I’m the one with all the metal in my blood. Everything wrong with my body is basically my fault.”
Lumpy frowned, not liking this idea at all. He put the raccoon down and reached into the box for something else. “Here, this will make you feel better,” he said.
He handed me a wrinkled magazine. Split was written across the top in swollen pink letters, and a woman was sitting on a man’s lap. She looked as if she were falling asleep and waking up at the same time.
“I don’t get it,” I asked.
“It’s a magazine. Look at it.”
Women with no clothes were squatting at funny angles over marble desks, clawfoot tubs, and aluminum kitchen chairs. I felt a water balloon pop inside me and spill confusion and heat all over my organs. All of their legs were far apart, so you could see the places where their skin grew darker and disappeared inside them. Their wrists, earlobes, and necks held silver jewelry, and even though the jewelry was big, none of it left a rash on their skin. Every single woman stared back at me with a happy boredom on her face. Lumpy pointed to a man inserting a spoon between the legs of a strawberry blond schoolteacher who was making a face like the spoon had drugged her.
“This magazine is weird,” I said.
When Lumpy scowled, the rain outside grew louder. “You’re weird if you think this magazine is weird.”
“They look like they’re trying to get rid of their own bodies,” I said, not wanting to relate. I closed the magazine and handed it back. “Hey, do you know how to thumb wrestle?”
“Are you gay?” he asked.
It would have been simpler to lie and say yes, or say no and kick him in the stomach like a normal boy. To have a friend, I’d simplify anything. But I wanted more than friendship from Lumpy: I wanted to be Lumpy. I wanted to be stronger, louder, and tougher in front of the world than I was in my skin. I wanted that superpower. Lumpy could turn shame into electricity, giving him not only confidence, but power over other people. If you had this, you didn’t have to be exposed all the time. You did what felt good, what made you come alive. If Lumpy could say anything that made him feel important, anything that made him feel as if he were in charge of something, why couldn’t I?
“You stole secret stuff from your dad’s closet,” I said, “and now you’re playing with it. You’re looking at his naked people magazines and you want me to look too. That’s way gayer. You and your dad.”
The natural light in Lumpy’s eyes dimmed. A wind seemed to blow through him and take him out of my apartment, and when it brought him back, it put him in his body backwards. My chest fizzed with new and unfamiliar energy.
Lumpy reached deep into the box. He pulled out a heavy and twirl-tied floral pillowcase, and I could smell the pennies inside it without him showing me.
“Don't,” I said.
He raised the sack up over his head. When he dropped it from as high as he could hold it up, the smash made my nostrils buzz. There were teeth inside my teeth and they were having a tantrum and making my gums upset. Every breath I took pulled in more penny smells, coating the inside of my nose and the back of my throat. For a second I thought the coins were already inside me.
“Okay, enough,” I said. “You can stop.”
He untied the pillowcase. That smell. It felt as if a penny-scented bathroom freshener had been sprayed in my face.
“You’re afraid,” Lumpy said. “Admit it.”
I felt my bellybutton telescoping inward with nausea. “No, I’m not. I feel bad for you. You’re excited about pennies.”
He scooped up a handful of pennies and brought them to his nose as if they were fresh coffee beans and he were an old man on TV. Mom had gotten rid of our TV—too metallic—and I missed it. TV could be muted.
“If you don’t want to play anymore, I’m leaving,” he said.
If I mashed my tongue against the roof of my mouth, I could usually stop myself from crying. A vein behind my front teeth was throbbing gently and I pressed it with my tongue as hard as I could. When he pretended to throw a penny at me, I flinched like a first-grader. “Stop,” I said.
“Settle down,” he said. “Why do you squirm so much?”
He dropped a handful of pennies on the floor and I felt a horrible ache in my spine. The sides of my face started to hurt because my jaw was too tight.
“I’ll get you a tissue,” he said, reaching for the magazine.
I yanked the pillowcase out of his hands. It was a sloppy show of muscle, and gallons of pennies crashed all over the floor. We watched them clatter across the room until they spun to a flat stop, or disappeared under the couch.
I braced myself for a beating. But the beating never came. Lumpy looked at me as if I were durable. No one, not once in my life, had ever done this.
“Watch,” he said, and stuffed a handful of pennies into his mouth.
When Mom’s teeth banged against her fork during dinner, my nerves were more awake than any other time we were together, more awake then when she gave me a hug before bed and in the morning. Every nerve in my body was aware of Lumpy’s teeth crunching against pennies. His jaw sounded like a chain being kicked.
“I dare you to swallow,” I said.
He spat out the pennies.
“I will if you will,” he said.
The pennies felt hot against my fingers. A long time ago, I had a little book about a man who shoveled coal into an oven on a train. The oven’s belly got so hot it turned the color of a heart.
“On three,” Lumpy said.
I didn’t want to die.
“Two,” he said.
I didn’t want to be alone.
Both of us lifted pennies above our heads and let the metal rain come down on us. I kept my mouth and eyes shut and let the pennies stick to my sockets and bounce off my face. My body shivered in the wrong direction, starting with my skin and moving down into my bones. If I opened my mouth, the pennies would probably taste as familiar as morning breath. I could tell from the wet sounds I was hearing that Lumpy was really doing it. Pennies were going down the hole in his mouth. At first I thought he’d faked it but I heard a far-away sloshing, as if his stomach were trying to hide its contents. I wanted to barf because Lumpy wasn’t barfing. His oily cheeks were fatter and redder than ever. Maybe it was a magic trick. No, it wasn’t—Lumpy stuck out his tongue and burped. A single leftover coin fell to the floor.
His face looked like it was going to slide off his head. Whatever lived inside his skull and steered him around and made him swallow pennies was about to expose itself, and prove it was realer and meaner than me.
“Swallow,” he said.
Once the pee starts dribbling out it’s really hard to fake bravery. “I can’t,” I said.
Lumpy picked up a new handful and stood close to my face. His penny breath made my eyes sting.
“You have to do it,” he said.
I clenched all my teeth and pulled back my lips so he could see every last tooth. With one hand he grabbed my neck. When I finally gasped for air he was able to shove a single penny inside, but I dug my fingernails into his strangling hand as if it were crusty bread. When his hand unclenched I spat the penny in his face.
“I’ll do it myself,” I said.
He smiled. I leaned down as if to grab a fistful of coins, but instead I grabbed the raccoon. I was done.
Lumpy cocked his head in confusion right before I whacked him above the eye. The raccoon popped with a crunch and some of the thick yellow foam his dad had sprayed down its throat came back up and out. Lumpy fell with a bang on top of the box.
Nothing was ever under control. “You deserve it,” I said.
Lumpy was still blinking way too hard. He was dizzy and wanted to get up.
“If this is how you treat a friend then you deserve it.”
He looked as if he had been paused.
“If I ever meet your dad, I’m going to tell him you deserve it.”
Faster than he’d fallen down, he was up and running at me, but I was already out the front door.
From the porch I tugged on the knob as hard as I could, trying to hold him inside. There was so much rain coming down I couldn’t see the street. I wanted to barf like a change machine at an arcade after someone shoved a million dollar bill inside me. Lumpy was pulling from the other side of the door as if his life were the one at risk. When I started to lose the tug-o-war, Lumpy slipped his hand around the side of the door so he could pull with more force. I spat on his knuckles. This weakened his grip for a half second, and I slammed the door as hard as I could on his fingers.
Lumpy screamed and fell back into the apartment. Through the door I heard books thrown against the wall. A shelf was pulled down, slapping like a giant’s hand against the floor. Couch cushions were ripped open. All of these sounds might have been Lumpy’s screaming. My clothes were soaked all the way through and the skin on my chest was humming as if it had been plugged in.
Mom said that breathing deeply can help us accept what's happening. I was breathing deeply to resist it. Soon my legs were shaking too much and I had to lay down on the doormat. When I took my thumb in my mouth it tasted like a spoon. I bit the bottom of the nail as hard as I could, and a tiny lake of blood bloomed beneath the nail. It wasn’t silver, it was ordinary, red and dark, and whatever was wrong with it couldn’t be seen. No one could say that about Lumpy.
I blacked out.
Someone was dragging me back into the apartment by my arms. The tape covering each nailhead on the floor brushed against my back until I came to a stop and heard someone crying.
It wasn’t Mom.
“Don’t leave,” he said.
He would not let go.
Some gifts might be impossible to receive. But I did not imagine this. The acceptance streaming out of his hands, reversing directions and then coming back to me again, over and over. This felt realer than the world.
If I kept my eyes closed, he would say it again.
“Please. Don’t leave.”