There are not just ugly men there. When he is sixteen, he looks old for his age and returns to the video store to see it for himself, and then he goes again and again. There are never any women back there, but there are all the kinds of men: short, fat, tall, skinny, handsome, ugly, friendly, afraid. Fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, they proceed in a quiet line in and out of the booths, peeking through the glory holes in the walls like children at a fair. Ed soon prefers the soldiers, their fuzzy heads smooth to the touch like the pelt of an animal and their radium watches that glow in the dark so he can sometimes see the time while they get him off with a hand job. He parks behind the building, hiding his bike from the road. When he goes in, he browses casually in the front half of the store, in case he can make a connection with someone before going to the back room and thus save the time of waiting and moving from booth to booth. He does not talk much to the clerk, who has not said much more to him since the first day he came in with his brother. For two dollars he could stay the whole day, and there are men who do, he is sure, but he has a house full of brothers and sisters who know how long he is gone.
He develops favorite booths, and avoids the other regulars by standing in the doorway, or on the bench, out of their reach through the glory hole, waiting as they pat the bench by his shoes. The first time he sees someone in a video that he recognizes from another video, he understands that there are men who do these videos all the time, and that this is something of a regular living for them, and for a while he loses interest in videos with familiar men. But by then he is no longer there to see the videos.
When he leaves the booths, he often goes to the church, dips his fingers in the bowl of water, crosses himself, lights a candle, and prays. In the late afternoon, heat rising off the banks of candles before the Virgin Mary, he writes requests to her for his family, placing them under the candle’s foot. He prays for his mother and father, for Ricky now in the military, stationed at Fort Hood, for Benny who can’t breathe so well, for Loreta, the oldest one still living at home and in charge of them all for now. After he finishes, he writes Ayúdame, Virgen, help me and I will always belong to your Son.
He enters the house after with a little of the church’s peace in him. “Hey freak,” Loreta yells at him from the kitchen. “How is our house saint?” Father Ávila once mentioned her brother’s many devotions to her, and now his family hopes he will become a priest. Except for Loreta. “He must be up to quite a bit to be praying so much,” she says at dinner every time it comes up. “Catholicism, it’s a low-maintenance kind of thing if you’re a good person.” When he blushes, his mother says “Loreta, shame on you.” Her eyes glow as she says it. “Look at my son blush. You cannot blush if you are wicked.” And then they all laugh.
Afterward he lies in bed, awake late into the night. He doesn’t want to go back. But he can’t stay away. He is grateful Father Ávila never mentions how he doesn’t go to confession nearly as much. When he does, he never mentions the booths, how he feels strung between the two of them. The priest on the other side feels too much like someone from the other booths, waiting for him to stick his hand through the hole. Even thinking this feels like a sin and also like something he can never say.
He begins to take a razor to himself each time he goes now. He cuts a little cross onto his chest first, right over his heart, a tiny one, about the size of a dime. God has to know I’m sorry, he tells himself.
By the time he graduates high school, his left shoulder is covered with them.