Ed pretends he knows what it means when his brother says, “She hates the taste of it.” They are in the yard; Ricky is working on his motorcycle’s muffler and telling him about his new girlfriend.
Ricky smiles at Ed’s put-on. He knows the kids at school will skin him alive if he doesn’t know this one. So he invites his little brother to come with him to the adult video store by the entrance to the Interstate. It is time he starts to learn these things, he tells him. Ed keeps his face blank, uncertain whether he should be interested.
“We’ll take Celita,” Ricky promises him, thinking this will make the difference. Celita is his bike, a new Suzuki 1000. When Ed climbs up on the back, he wraps his arms around his brother, dizzy at the distance between them and the ground. He has ridden on the back of Ricky’s other bikes, but this is the largest one yet. It feels like an enormous beast, like it could not possibly have their best interests in mind. Ricky has hacked the muffler so it is louder, and when he throttles the engine it sounds as if they should be able to fly.
“Are you ready?” Ricky yells back to Ed, when he feels his little brother stop squirming.
“Yeah,” Ed replies. He braces himself and Ricky laughs to feel the little arms tighten.
Ricky pushes open the blacked-out door and heads to the counter at the back of the room. Ed trails slowly behind him, pausing to look closely at the shrink-wrapped magazines and their pictures of men and women together. They look bestial, naked, sunburned, mouths open and showing teeth. The magazines Ricky has at home are not like this, magazines of women only, alone, their clothes caught while falling off them, or running naked through the surf at the beach, the surf covering that one exact spot. “He can’t be here . . .” says the man at the front counter, as if to stop them, pointing at Ed, and Ricky waves at him, winking and saying, “He’s with me.”
Ed sees a darkened doorway with a curtain to the left of the counter, some muffled music and noises emitting from it. Ricky and the clerk are occupied by each other, and he doesn’t want to embarrass himself by asking what is back there, so instead he walks slowly, hidden from view by the shelves, into the back and through the curtain.
His eyes adjust to the darkness. The room is huge. He hears a jangle of televisions on different channels played loud and close to each other: yells, music with fast beats, recorded breathing that sounds too heavy and too close. He smells sweat, old sweat, like a locker room, layered over with the stinging fragrance of soap. He walks down the four rows of doors, made of cheap pine and washed gray with primer, until he finds an open booth and stands in the doorway. A television plays mounted on a shelf to his right, a bench sits in front of him. The ceiling is open at the top, and when he looks up he can see squares of blue light, flickering in a grid along it, coming from the booths.
He sits down on the bench. The television’s brightness is a pressure on his eyes. A black bar rolls up the screen, signaling the beginning of a movie, and he watches as a convertible driven by a husky blond man fills the screen. The title appears: Pleasure Beach.
His brother steps into the doorway. For a moment Ed can’t tell what the expression is on his face, and then realizes it is fear.
“Don’t you ever come in here again,” Ricky says. He reaches down and pulls Ed from the booth by his arm. Ed does not resist. “Never, never, never. There’s nothing back there but ugly men, Eddie. No women are back there. Don’t fucking go back there.” Ricky walks quickly, head down, past the smiling clerk, dragging Ed from the store.
They don’t talk about it again. They return to normal, but sometimes when Ricky looks at him, Ed can feel it, the fear, like the heat of the sun on his skin. He knows what Ed also knows, that some day, when Ricky is not there, Ed will return.
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.
One afternoon, as he nears his yard, a truck he had not noticed behind him honks, and as he checks his mirror he can see a man there, waving him over to the side of the road. He doesn’t recognize him from anything he did earlier that day, but he can tell this is someone who followed him from the booths. He keeps driving, past his yard, heading around the curve of the road and out of sight of the house. Ed pulls over just before the bridge crossing the creek. He stays seated on his bike.
The truck pulls in behind him and a silver-haired man steps out of the cab. He smiles. “You didn’t go to church.” Ed looks hard at him and still can’t remember him: a handsome Anglo, blue-eyed, his teeth large and white, his skin smooth, as if he is a youth surprised by the passage of time. He is wearing a T-shirt and jeans, a huge steel watch on his wrist.
“No,” Ed says, “I didn’t.” He squints back up in the direction of his house in his sideview mirror. The yard as he passed it was empty of cars and the house seemed empty. “How long have you been following me?”
“A few weeks.” He looks at his hands as he says this, and then back at Ed.
Ed wonders if this is a lie. “You follow me to church? You’re no Catholic, I think. Why are you here?”
“Do you really not know?” The man steps closer, smiling, confident.
Ed says nothing. He looks out across the handlebars and stays motionless.
“I think you know.” He smooths back his hair, looking around to the road and then back at him. “Look.” He smiles at Ed. “Look, OK? I’m not . . . here to hurt you. Or nothing like that. I just thought we could maybe, I just wanted to . . . I mean, don’t you get sick of all that?”
Ed tries to think. It had never occurred to him that anyone would follow him away from the place. That any of the men there existed outside of the store. He begins to panic but keeps the tremor out of his voice when he says, “I don’t get sick of it. I like it that way.”
The guy’s smile fades. “I like it to be there,” Ed says.
“I think you don’t mean that. You’re . . .” He walks over to Ed, up close, and reaches a hand toward him.
“Don’t do that,” Ed says. His eyes are burning, he is almost crying with fear and anger, but he feels powerful now. “Just get out of here now. You’re wrong, you made a mistake. I’m not that guy.”
“Something wrong?” From up the road, walking slow, it is Loreta, her air rifle in her hand. She takes her time, squinting at the two of them until she pulls even.
“Is there something you didn’t understand about what my brother just said?” She straddles the back seat of Ed’s bike, the barrel of the rifle waving in the air like a finger. “Hi,” she says. She smiles at the man brightly.
Ed’s visitor’s eyes are glassy. Loreta pauses. She had meant to be meaner, but she pauses: Something in a man always stays soft, like the skin in between your fingers, and no amount of roughness ever reaches it. This always did her in.
“You got a home, you got a place to park that truck. Go home, cowboy.” The man steps backward until he reaches the hood of his truck, and then he spins around the front of it and climbs into the cab. He does a three-point turn in the road while Ed and Loreta sit on the bike, watching him until he drives away.
Ed does not look back at her. He sits still, waiting for her to speak.
“Did you know him? Did he owe you money?” she asks. He feels her shift to pull her gum out of her jeans’ front pocket. She hands a stick to him, and he opens his hand to say no.
“Nope,” he says. Through the afternoon the sky had filled with thin papery clouds, pulled out into sheets by the wind, and now the sun shines through as if through gauze.
“I came down because I saw you drive by and slow down as that truck waved at you. You must have stopped because you recognized him or something. Who was he?” Loreta chews her gum fiercely, snapping it now and again. “I got all day.”
“I never saw him before. Honest,” Ed replies.
“Why was he reaching for you?” She stands and gets off the bike. Ed looks at her, her jeans sliding off her hips and her T-shirt too small for her. The gold cross around her neck flickers in the sun. “If you don’t know him, why’d you pull over, and why here and not in the driveway?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t want him to know where we lived,” he says. He watches himself in the reflection of his gas tank. When he turns back up to her, she is wrinkling her brow, one leg pointed off to the side, disbelieving. She brings the gun up to her shoulder and aims down the sight, back over his head toward their house.
“You’re full of shit, mi vida. But you’re my brother, and you’re OK. You just got to watch out for these white-boy cowboys in their big trucks,” she says, and turning away from her target, she winks at him. “Don’t just be pulling over for them every time they give you a wave hello. Shit, Ed, this is West Texas. You did grow up here.”
She swings the gun down and levels it, as if to fire at someone’s stomach. “Pow,” she says. “C’mon. Don’t give me that sour face. I am your goddamn sister. Let’s go get something to eat.”
The next time he returns to the booths, weeks have passed. No one is there except him. It feels strangely lonely for the first time. He watches one of the movies through to the end, and when it loops up again he watches it again, and then once more. As he leaves the booths, he is thinking for the first time that he will leave Texas.
He had been hoping, he knows, as the tape plays, to find the man his sister had chased off. Would he apologize? He wants to at least tell him, he understands what he wanted. He always had. He just hated that anyone could tell.
Years later, when he is living in San Francisco, he will be walking down the street with friends and see this film again on sale in a bin at the Castro, and remember it. He will pull it out and hold it in his hands while his friends make fun of him for wanting old discount porn.
What he remembers in that moment is the screen full of sparks like snow, from the tape played too many times in a row, how the hairy, longhaired, and bearded men, almost like antiques, played naked with each other outdoors in the snowy woods around Aspen, goofing off like they knew each other well. They wrestled, laughed, threw snow in wild arcs, kissed. Each time they did, Ed felt the air around him distill into a kind of crystal. If there had been anyone there to watch him he would have looked away from the screen. But what he remembers most is the white sparks around their faces like they were angels in some tacky tinseled heaven, beaming at him pictures of this embarrassing, difficult, beautiful thing.